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Biotechnology

Japan could regulate away drone growth

TOKYO -- A four-propeller drone carrying mildly radioactive material found Wednesday on top of the prime minister's office has prompted a debate in Japan about drone regulations. Rules being discussed would restrict the use of drones near key facilities such as government buildings.

     Experts say excessively strict rules could stifle the potential growth of the emerging drone market.

     "We need to have a well-balanced discussion about both safety concerns and benefits," said Itsuki Noda, the leader of the service design assist research team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. "Instead of implementing blanket rules nationwide, the government should consider introducing a variety of regulations in special zones and other areas."

     The discovered drone is most likely to be a modified version of Chinese maker DJI's Phantom series model, Tokyo police said Thursday. "What we were worried about has happened," said a police official.

     DJI, based in southern city of Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, drew much media attention after a hobbyist accidentally crashed a drone made by the company on the White House grounds in January.

     Phantom drones are built-in with a small camera and priced between 100,000 yen and 200,000 yen ($829 to $1,659). Four-propeller Phantom drones can fly for up to 25 minutes, according to the company's website. The user can control a Phantom by looking at a live image sent from the built-in camera and fly it to a target point within a 1km radius using GPS technology. For safety purposes, these drones are programmed so they cannot take off or fly in the vicinity of airports.

     Industry experts estimate that DJI has sold approximately 1 million units worldwide; tens of thousands are believed to have been sold in Japan.

     After the incident this week, DJI Japan designated the areas around the prime minister's office and the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo as no-fly zones. It has programmed that setting into its new products, according to the company. This no-fly-zone setting will be downloaded into already-purchased models when their software programs are updated, the company said.

     Founded in 2006, DJI has quickly grown into a major drone manufacturer. The company has taken full advantage of its location in Shenzhen, which is home to a number of smartphone-making plants. Its drones incorporate smartphone technology. DJI says it has a majority of share in the global drone market, excluding those for military use.

     Currently, DJI drones are mainly used for photography and video. They have huge potential for various uses going forward. For instance, U.S. online retail giant Amazon.com is looking into introducing a home-delivery service using small unmanned aerial vehicles, called Amazon Prime Air. In Japan, too, drones are increasingly employed for testing and other purposes in disaster-stricken areas, on construction sites, farmlands and in other places.

     Analysts expect the global drone market will be worth 10 trillion yen over the next 10 years.

     Nevertheless, the government is moving toward stricter regulations following Wednesday's incident. Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga has indicated that there are plans to tighten rules on the use of drones in Japan.

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