Japan to Allow Drone Flights in Urban Areas from Mon.

Courtesy of ANA Holdings Inc.
Drone delivery test conducted by ANA Holdings and others in Kagoshima Prefecture

Tokyo (Jiji Press)—Japan’s revised civil aeronautics law will take effect Monday, allowing drone flights beyond pilots’ line of sight above residential areas including urban districts.

The law revision is expected to lead to full-fledged utilization of drones by a wide range of industries, especially the logistics industry facing labor shortages, prompting many related companies to prepare to make use of drones in their future services.

Drones are currently allowed to fly over urban areas only when operators and others can monitor them visually.

The revised law will relax these regulations, opening the way for so-called Level 4 drone flights, in which operators fly drones in airspace above urban areas even outside their line of sight, the highest level of the country’s four-tier drone flight operation scale.

Operators are required to obtain aircraft certificates and pilot qualifications. They also need to gain advance permissions about safety measures from the land minister for each drone flight operation.

Currently, drones are mostly used for spraying pesticide and inspecting infrastructure.

As the areas where drones are allowed to fly will be expanded to include residential areas, the small aircraft are expected to be utilized for logistics and security services as well as aerial photography, people familiar with the matter said.

According to a 2022 drone business report by Impress Research Institute, the size of the drone market, including services and devices, is expected to expand to ¥800 billion in fiscal 2027, up by 2.6-fold from the level projected for fiscal 2022.

Major Japanese logistics service provider Seino Holdings Co. is offering a delivery service using drones with Tokyo-based drone developer Aeronext Inc. in mountain areas in the central Japan prefectures of Yamanashi and Fukui, transporting food and other products to local residents.

Currently, drones used in the delivery service need to take detours, flying above rivers and other nonresidential areas, as they are not allowed to take flight routes above residential areas under the current law.

“The lifting of a ban on Level 4 drone flights will allow our drones to take the shortest route possible,” a Seino official said.

The company plans to limit the drone delivery service to provincial areas for the time being but aims to introduce it in urban areas in the future, according to the official.

Major airlines are also keen to utilize drones in their services.

Japan Airlines and ANA Holdings Inc. , the parent of All Nippon Airways, aim to launch drone delivery services in fiscal 2023 and fiscal 2025, respectively. The major airlines are conducting related demonstration tests in remote island areas, where transportation means are limited.

According to the transport ministry, Level 4 drone flights are expected to be realized in sparsely populated districts in rural areas for some time before they became available in urban areas.

“Further improvement in drone aircraft is needed” to introduce drone delivery services in full scale in city areas, where strong winds and turbulent airflows can occur around skyscrapers, an industry source said.

As a drone flight management system would also be indispensable for simultaneous flights by multiple drones in the same airspace, further efforts by the public and private sectors are necessary to realize safe drone flights in urban areas, pundits said.