On Monday, Japan lifted its ban on autonomous drone flights over residential areas. This will make drone deliveries possible and help the country deal with the labor shortages caused by its aging population, especially in rural areas.
Autonomous drone flights were previously only permitted over uninhabited regions such as mountains, rivers, and farmlands under the four-tier classification system.
Level-four autonomous drone operations over residential areas are set to commence in March, if operators intending to offer such services complete the requisite regulatory processes.
While some logistics companies have already begun using level-three drones for deliveries, flights through residential areas made possible by a revision to the Civil Aeronautics Law are hoped to help the country address a severe shortage of delivery truck drivers as well as difficulties accessing retail stores in rural areas.
“We no longer have to avoid traveling over people's homes, so our delivery efficiency will improve,” said an official from logistics business Seino Holdings Co., which has been delivering food and other everyday supplies in remote parts of Hokkaido, Yamanashi, and Fukui prefectures using drones.
Eased regulations to boost drone deliveries
Drone deliveries can help bring essential supplies to disaster-affected regions, such as medications for hospitals and food for high-rise apartment occupants, in addition to extending commercial delivery services.
The government requires level-four drone flight operators to get a license issued under a newly established system and have their drones examined and authorized by the government or accredited organizations to guarantee safe flights over dwellings.
Every three years, drone pilots must renew their licenses by passing written and skills examinations. Those who finish courses at state-approved institutions will be excluded from taking a skills exam.
After passing a regulatory assessment of the product design and production methods, each mass-produced drone model receives safety clearance.
Every year, the government requires drones used for level-four flights to pass a flying test. Their flight plans and routes must be disclosed to the government, and operators must have internal policies for dealing with operating hazards and reporting accidents. The Japan Transport Safety Board will examine serious accidents.
With drone deliveries still in their infancy, there are still issues about flying drones over residential areas, particularly privacy violations caused by drone cameras.
While the government claims that landowners' consent to drone flights over their lands is not always required, TrueBizon Ltd. in southern Japan offers services to help aerial drone operators avoid problems.
The Fukuoka-based startup connects drone operators with landowners, with landowners getting paid if they consent to drone flights over their property and being reimbursed in case of a drone accident.
“Without residents' agreement, there is a high chance of trouble,” said Mamoru Masumoto who heads the company, according to Kyodo News.
The cover photo shows a drone delivering medications in Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Japan Airlines.
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