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Economy

Japan to open skies to commercial drones with flexible rules

Online registration would allow flights over populated areas

Rakuten is experimenting with drone delivery with supermarket chain Seiyu. (Photo by Makoto Okada)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government plans to put in place around 2022 a streamlined registry for drones that would pave the way for greater commercial use in services such as residential deliveries.

Using drones for drug delivery or monitoring disaster sites is starting to catch on in Japan's sparsely populated areas, but services like delivery have not taken off.

The country bans unmanned aerial vehicles from operating in heavily populated areas without a permit, which requires multiple documents to be filed with information including the make of the drone, the purpose, the date, the route and other details.

The new registration system will process applications online, and the permit would last for a certain period of time. To register, an applicant would simply enter the name of the owner, the user, and the ID number assigned to the drone upon purchase.

The goal is to pass related legislation by fiscal 2021.

This is expected to expand the commercial application of drones, such as for online deliveries, authorities can easily trace the vehicles and the owners in cases of accidents. It is also designed to prevent a swarm of drones from filling the skies over houses.

Drone registration regimes are already in place in several countries, including the U.S., Canada, the U.K., France, Australia and China. The U.S. registers about 300,000 drones, according the country's Federal Aviation Administration, and the number is projected to triple by 2023.

The Japanese business community is clamoring for a similar arrangement. Supermarket chain Seiyu has partnered e-commerce heavyweight Rakuten to launch an experimental drone delivery service in July that sends packages to remote islands. Japan Post Holdings aims to use drones to efficiently convey parcels to mountainous and sparsely populated areas.

"Registration may take some time, but it is will ensure the safety of populated areas and it is necessary for the advancement of industry," said a manager at airline group ANA Holdings.

The government will also craft rules setting safety standards for drones. For example, a vehicle must be able to descend without incident even during inclement weather. Operators of drones would also have to be certified.

Japan overhauled laws governing drones after an incident in 2015 when a device containing traces of radioactive material landed on the roof of Prime Minister's official residence. The airspace above that building is now off limits to drone flight, as are areas above the Imperial Palace, military bases, and venues hosting the 2020 Olympic Games. Officials plan to add blocks with high-rise building to the roster.

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