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Tokyo police announce fresh drone arrests amid push for further legislation

White smoke billows from a drone that fell near the start line at a bicycle race in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, in September 2015, in this provided photo.

TOKYO -- The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) announced one arrest and several referrals to prosecutors on May 27 over illegal drone flights in restricted areas, as the number of such cases is rising over recent years.

Takashi Kaga, 52, a resident of Tokyo's Edogawa Ward who claims to be a demolition worker, was arrested on May 26 on suspicion of violating the Civil Aeronautics Act. Additionally, police announced that three men including a 25-year-old Polish student have been referred to prosecutors after they were caught flying a drone.

According to police, Kaga is specifically accused of flying a drone without proper permission in a park near his home at around 10 p.m. on May 9. A passerby called police after noticing Kaga performing dangerously quick descents and ascents with the gadget.

The MPD's safety division says he has admitted to the allegations, saying he thought flying in a wide open space like a park would be fine. The MPD arrested him citing fears that the suspect could destroy evidence or flee, after he failed to provide the drone in a voluntary investigation in which he also filled in a form using a false name.

In addition to the Polish university student, two company employees were referred to prosecutors in separate cases. The illegal drone flight incidents, spanning March and April 2019, took place in Ueno Park in Tokyo's Taito Ward, a park in the capital's Adachi Ward and a residential area in Hachioji, western Tokyo. In the three instances, the aircraft appeared to be flown for landscape photography.

Amid increased numbers of arrests, the MPD is strengthening security measures in anticipation of large scale events such as the October parade to celebrate Emperor Naruhito's accession and the summer 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games. According to the MPD, the number of drone-related cases exposed by law enforcers has shown a steep rise, from five in 2016, to 10 in 2017, to 13 in 2018. This year, the figure as of May 27 already came to nine.

While many of these drone cases are caused by hobbyists ignorant of which zones are restricted when launching their craft, there have also been instances carried out with malicious intent. As part of efforts to step up measures against such cases, a bill to revise the Civil Aeronautics Act is under discussion in the National Diet.

Amid an increase in security that accompanied the Imperial succession between the end of April and beginning of May, the MPD's riot police unit reported firsthand sightings of a drone-like object in Imperial Palace air-space in Tokyo on the night of May 2. Another flying object was spotted on the night of May 6, but authorities could neither confirm if it was a drone nor find its pilot.

According to the National Police Agency (NPA), cases of unpermitted drone flights in violation of the Civil Aeronautics Act have increased from 36 incidents involving 37 people in 2016, to 68 involving 77 people in 2017, rising further to 82 cases involving 84 people in 2018. Additionally, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism reported 79 cases of problems in fiscal 2018 including injuries caused by drones falling on people at places such as event venues, representing an annual rise.

Investigators are seen covering the drone that landed on the prime minister's office in a blue sheet, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on April 22, 2015. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Mochizuki)

In April 2015, a drone carrying sand with traces of radiation was flown onto the roof of the prime minister's office in Tokyo. The incident catalyzed amendments to the Civil Aeronautics Act in December 2015, which ruled spaces including densely populated areas were now controlled airspace, with permissions required to fly drones in them.

Following the amendment, the transport ministry says it received 36,895 applications for flight approval in fiscal 2018, nearly three times the 13,535 requests made in fiscal 2016. A person in charge of the applications told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Many of the applications are for aerial photography, with a huge increase in requests for personal use."

According to major electronics retailer Bic Camera in Toshima Ward, its most popular drone comes attached with a camera and retails for about 12,000 yen (about $110). Products with a higher degree of operational ability selling for close to 110,000 yen are also popular. The majority of customers are men aged from their 20s to 50s, with most of them buying the gadgets for landscape photography.

In 2018, Kyoto Prefectural Police referred a record 19 people to prosecutors for unauthorized drone flights in contravention of the Civil Aeronautics Act. Among them, 16 were foreigners, indicating that a large number of tourists appear to be ignorant of Japan's drone laws.

With the emergence of cases in which drones are used as weapons abroad, and the 2015 incident at the prime minister's office, the MPD set up an anti-drone unit within its riot police section in December that year. "Interceptor drones" capable of catching other drones in a net were introduced to the police arsenal, along with more recent acquisitions of technology to identify drones as well as incapacitating radio-wave jammers to help bring down potential threats.

However, issues remain. Despite recent arrests, police say that factors including distance between a drone and its pilot, if the aircraft is being flown during the nighttime and whether it has been pre-programmed to fly automatically introduce difficulties in capturing and identifying suspects.

(Japanese original by Atsushi Matsumoto, Takayuki Kanamori, Yuki Yamamoto and Hiroshi Sasaki, City News Department, and Hiroshi Odanaka, Kyoto Bureau)

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