Drone laws: Japan prepares to ban flying unmanned aerial vehicles under the influence of alcohol

  • While drone accidents in Japan have so far not been caused by drunk operators, authorities want to pre-empt a situation that happened in the US, when a ‘drunk person landed a drone on the grounds of the White House’
  • If new laws are passed, those who drink and drone could be jailed for up to a year
Topic | Drones

Julian Ryall

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As in other countries, Japanese authorities have become increasingly wary of the potential threat posed by drones. Photo: Bloomberg

Drinking and droning? It could soon cost you up to a year in jail in Japan, where an amendment to the country’s civil aeronautics law being debated in the Diet would make it illegal to operate unmanned aerial vehicles while under the influence of alcohol.

According to the transport ministry, there were 79 incidents involving drones in the last financial year. None of them involved a drunk operator but tighter restrictions were nonetheless regarded as a necessary pre-emptive move.

“There are lots of different types of accidents that are reported each year but the majority are relatively minor and involve, for example, a drone operating on a predetermined route making an accidental landing,” a ministry official said, adding that there were 63 reports of accidents in 2017 and 55 the previous year.

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“We have no records of someone causing an accident with a drone while drinking, but we do know that in the US about three years ago, a drunk person landed a drone in the grounds of the White House,” the official said.

“We obviously want to avoid that sort of situation, so these new laws are designed to stop something before it happens.”

Under the new rules, a drone operator will be legally required to carry out preflight checks of the vehicle and authorities will carry out on-the-spot inspections when an accident occurs.

Under the existing laws, an operator requires the ministry’s permission to operate a drone that weighs more than 200g in a densely populated area, near an airport, at night or out of visual range.

In the US about three years ago, a drunk person landed a drone in the grounds of the White House.

Transport ministry official

As well as banning an operator from flying a drone after drinking alcohol, the new rules will ban drones deemed noisy and outlaw potentially dangerous manoeuvres, such as sharp dives.

Anyone contravening the new laws on drinking and flying a drone will face a maximum prison term of one year or a fine of 300,000 yen (US$2,700), while other violations could carry 500,000 yen fines.

As in other countries, Japanese authorities have become increasingly wary of the potential threat posed by drones.

In 2015, police launched a full investigation after a drone bearing trace amounts of radioactive caesium was found on the helipad on the roof of the prime minister’s official residence in central Tokyo. The drone was equipped with a small camera and carried a brown bottle containing a liquid. A sticker on the bottle bore the tri-foil symbol for radiation and the word “radioactive”.

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Tests on the device revealed low levels of radiation and it was assumed the incident was the work of environmentalists protesting the government’s plans at the time to restart the nation’s nuclear power stations.

Chris Dunn, an Australian businessman who flies three drones for fun, had no objections to the new regulations, although his hobby seems to be more heavily regulated in Japan than elsewhere.

“The drones that I have are relatively small and have plastic propellers but if I was in the park and made a mistake then they could certainly hurt someone if they fell from a long way up,” he said.

“I think this new legislation is smart and appropriate because even though most recreational drones are small and light, they could still injure a child, for example.”

Dunn said existing regulations severely restrict places where drone enthusiasts can practise their hobby.

“In truth, the rules on where you can fly, the altitudes you can operate at and so on are so strict, that I actually don’t see so many people flying drones here; Japanese people seem to wait until they go abroad to use them,” he said. “Japan is not the best place in the world to have this as a hobby.”

On Sunday, police issued a warning to a foreign tourist who was seen operating a small drone over the main crossing outside Shibuya Station in central Tokyo. The aircraft did not cause any accidents but police issued the man with a verbal warning against operating a drone in an urban area.

National broadcaster NHK said the man told police he was not aware flying drones was forbidden in Japanese cities.

Drones
Japan
Julian Ryall never expected to still be in Japan 24 years after he first arrived, but he quickly realised its advantages over his native London. He lives in Yokohama with his wife and children and writes for publications around the world.
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