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Politics

Japan to open its skies to commercial drones

Personnel shortages prompt deregulation to help lift productivity

A drone delivers drinks to surfers on a Fukushima beach on a test flight.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan will begin allowing commercial drones to deliver packages in remote areas this summer with a view to urban operation in a few years as labor-strapped companies look to take advantage of the technology.

The government will revise screening standards under the aviation law to let drones fly beyond the operator's line of sight on distant islands and mountainous regions to speed commercial use. 

Under the plan, businesses and individuals will be required to limit their flight areas and operate the aircraft at a safe position, speed and altitude.

Operators will not be allowed to fly over people's heads and will have to avoid other aircraft and trees. The government also plans to require launch centers to load and unload packages and create rules to prevent cargo from dropping and drones from being overloaded.

From fiscal 2018, the transport ministry will begin a debate on allowing drones in cities, with plans to allow flights as early as 2020. Given the need to navigate city streets lined with utility poles and tall buildings, the government will consider a new system to certify eligible drones and issue pilot licenses. Privacy and land rights will also be discussed.

Japan drew up rules on flying drones in 2015 after one laced with radioactive material was found on the roof of the prime minister's office. Under the current rules, with government permission that lasts up to a year, drones can be flown within the operator's line of sight.

When drones first became widespread, the public's attention was focused on illicit use. But with technologies advancing, calls are growing for deregulation to allow flights beyond the line of sight. Amid serious labor shortages, the technology is expected to play a great role in shipping and remote monitoring. 

International competition to commercialize drones is intense, with China and France taking the lead on standards for flying beyond the line of sight. China allows drones weighing 4kg or less to do so, according to the Mitsubishi Research Institute. The policy is apparently driving the growth of DJI, which holds a 70% global share for civilian use.

U.S. President Donald Trump also moved to relax regulations by executive action last October. Flights beyond the operator's line of sight or at night had been prohibited, but now local governments are allowed to set looser rules. The move, championed by such businesses as Amazon.com, aims to counter China.

"The U.S. drone industry was stalled, but progress on commercial use may advance rapidly thanks to the Trump administration," said an expert who took part in transport ministry discussions.

Business opportunities will expand for companies in Japan should flights beyond the line of sight gain traction. Japan Post and virtual mall operator Rakuten are each testing piloting drones, while companies like Fujitsu are studying use for disseminating information in times of disaster. Local governments also hope that drones will help manage infrastructure like bridges and power lines by shooting high-resolution images from the sky to optimize maintenance.

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