Japan Continues to Loosen Its Drone Restrictions

Japan’s drone industry once lagged far behind the United States – now it’s poised to catch up.  Last year, under growing pressure from Japanese drone manufacturers, the country loosened its long-standing regulations that prohibited drone flights over residential areas and that also banned nearly all beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flights, even in uninhabited areas.

The new regulations, first announced in mid-2021, establish a 4-tier permit system that grants drone operators much greater leeway to program and conduct their flights virtually anywhere in the country, without remote piloting, and even in heavily populated areas where the safety risk was once deemed unduly prohibitive.

The four tiers are distinguished by three main criteria: whether flights must be remotely-piloted, conducted within visual line of sight, and restricted to uninhabited areas. Tier 1 flights remain the most restricted.  Drones must be remotely-piloted and conducted within the drone operator’s visual line of sight, which typically limits them to a distance of just a few miles.

By contrast, Tier 2 flights, while still remotely-piloted, can be conducted at longer distances beyond the visual line of sight.  In theory,  drone pilots can fly over an unlimited distance, but must still maintain constant contact with their vehicle through a signal link, in part to keep it on course and avoid a crash or collision that might damage buildings or injure local inhabitants.

Tiers 3 and 4 represent the biggest regulatory breakthrough.  In these cases, drones need not be remotely piloted at all.  For Tier 3 flights, BVLOS flights are still limited to uninhabited areas, such as farms, commercial infrastructure and beaches and waterways.  By contrast, for Tier 4, any area can be flown over, without the need for remote piloting.

Pressure in Japan for new regulations has been growing for some time, but the latest catalyst was a major commercial drone exposition held in June 2021.   Some 200 different companies displayed their state-of-the-art wares at the two-week long event held in Chiba City. Telecom giant SoftBank exhibited a drone with six double propellers, a major advance over standard quadcopter models.  Another company, SoftBank, showcased a fixed-wing drone with a payload capacity of 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds), which exceeded UAV cargo weight restrictions then in force.

Suzuki Shinji, president of the Japan UAS Industrial Development Association, which organized the exhibition, told local media that Japan’s government regulations were inhibiting the growth of its drone industry, reducing the country’s competitiveness.  He noted that Japanese companies were developing drones that were safer and more reliable, justifying new authority for autonomous BVLOS drone flights, even in heavily-populated areas.

Japan’s recently adopted 4-tier scheme does not affect long-standing restrictions on drone flights over most government buildings as well as airports and museums. In fact, Japan has tightened its restrictions on government building overflights to encompass nearly all Japanese and American military bases and as well as public and commercial infrastructure deemed of “strategic” importance (and potentially vulnerable to terrorist attack).  Larger drones, while authorized for the first time, must be flown at high altitudes to avoid interfering with other air traffic and commercial and consumer communication systems.

In the United States the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is still debating new nationwide guidelines for BVLOS flights, especially in densely-populated areas.  Some retailers currently piloting their remote package delivery services are being granted authority to expand these flights into populated areas – but only for “last mile” deliveries.  Some companies have also received authority for BVLOS flights to inspect their installations and infrastructure in non-residential areas.  In addition, a 50-mile long drone “corridor” allowing for relatively unrestricted drone flights has been established near an FAA NuAir testing center in upstate New York.

Japan’s loosening of restrictions on Tier 4 BVLOS flights won’t likely lead to a massive expansion of drone operations in residential areas – at least not right away.  Each new drone model will need to pass a safety test, but once it does, a broad authority to fly BVLOS will be granted, without the need for a special permit.  However, Japan still needs additional ports and air traffic management infrastructure to support flights in urban areas.  In addition, batteries with enhanced storage capacity aren’t likely to come on line right away, which could limit longer-distance BLVOS flights for some time.

Still, thanks to the latest regulatory changes, Japan’s drone industry is poised to make major new advances – and not just in logistics, experts say, but in oil pipeline and infrastructure inspections, farm management, disaster response and coastal security.

Japan’s regulatory changes are also leading to more optimistic growth projections for its drone industry.  The industry’s estimated value in 2022 was just US$ 5.2 billion but was expected to nearly triple in size to US$ 14.2 billion by 2032.  Now, those 10-year growth projections – about 9.2% CAGR – are being revised substantially upwards – to as high as 16.1%, according to a 2022 report by Intellectual Market Insights Research.  At that heady pace, Japan’s drone industry – already the largest in Asia next to China – could soon rival that of the United States.

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