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No restrictions on low-altitude drone flights over 37% of SDF facilities

(Mainichi/Kanna Fukasawa)

TOKYO -- There are no legal restrictions on flying drones less than 150 meters above 87 (about 37 percent) of the Self-Defense Forces' 238 major facilities across Japan, a Defense Ministry study has revealed.

These facilities include core installations such as the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF)'s Yokota air base, where the ASDF Air Defense Command is located, in the city of Fussa, western Tokyo, and the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF)'s Camp Zama in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of the capital, which houses the Ground Component Command's Japan-U.S. joint operation unit.

With worries high worldwide about the threat of terror attacks, the government is looking to strengthen legal restrictions on drone flights. A panel made up of members of all ministries and agencies concerned is expected to hold consultations on the matter in mid-December. The Defense Ministry drone flight study, its first ever such survey regarding SDF bases and other facilities, was launched after the Mainichi Shimbun inquired about the issue last February.

Under the Civil Aeronautics Act, anyone planning to fly a drone at an altitude of 150 meters or more, or under 150 meters over populated areas or runways, must get permission from the transport minister. Under these regulations, the ministry found that low-altitude drone flights were legal over 52 out of 132 major GSDF facilities, one out of 25 ASDF facilities, and 34 of 81 Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) installations. Drones are regulated above the remaining 151 bases. However, the basic requirement to obtain permission to fly the unmanned craft in such restricted airspace is "due consideration to avoid safety problems," but the law does not have a clause requiring consideration of national security.

Flying drones above specific "important facilities" including the Diet Building, the prime minister's office, the Imperial Palace, and foreign missions, is banned under Japan's drone flight prohibition law. However, of all SDF-related installations, only the Defense Ministry headquarters building in Tokyo is considered an "important facility" under the law. This has led to calls from the United States government to expand the legal limits on drone flights to over and around its bases in Japan.

The Japanese government is promoting private sector uses for drones, and was initially hesitant to impose stronger regulation of the aircraft. However, as discussions progressed on anti-terror measures ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Games, proposals soon emerged to ban drone flights over SDF and U.S. military installations.

Countering potential drone attacks, including by terrorists, is a global issue. The so-called Islamic State (IS) extremist group used drones armed with small bombs to conduct attacks in northern Iraq in 2016-17. In August this year in Venezuela, a drone loaded with explosives blew up over an event where President Nicolas Maduro was speaking, seriously injuring a number of people.

However, banning drones from certain areas of the sky will not be sufficient to prevent terror attacks using the machines. If SDF troops judge a nearby drone presents an imminent threat, they can shoot it down. However, any subsequent investigation or pursuit of the culprits would be under police jurisdiction, meaning there is a limit to how much Japan's defense forces can do to combat terrorism.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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