Not only are drones a modern support for professional filming and effective help in rescue missions, they are also a very exciting hobby and, in addition to drone racing, also offer the opportunity to take fantastic videos and photos privately. However, for those who want to fly their drone in Japan, there are some important points to consider. This is as true for Japan as it is for almost any other country in the world.
The general rules for drone pilots
The most important rules in Japan are set by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT).
The rules apply to all aircraft that fall within the classification of UAV. The term "UAV/drone" means any aircraft, rotorcraft, glider or airship that cannot accommodate a person on board and is remotely or automatically controlled. It excludes those that are lighter than 200 grams. For this purpose, the weight of a UAV/drone includes the battery.
The nationwide rules:
- Flying in regions with dense population is strictly prohibited without formal permission. This includes pretty much every major city, and therefore almost everything in the Tokyo metropolitan area. There are several ways to check the no-fly zones. One of the easiest is to use the DJI flight map. Here you can see effortlessly which regions are red and therefore off limits. Tokyo itself has added a rule that all public parks are off limits to flying. However, this flight ban also applies in many other cities and often also applies to the so-called toy drones with a weight of less than 200 grams.
- Flying in the surrounding areas of airports, political buildings, nuclear power plants, military bases is allowed only with a special permit.
- You should not fly a drone over public events without a special permit.
- Without permission, a drone may not exceed the flight altitude of 150 meters. It is important to note that the current flight altitude of the drone is measured from the starting point. So if you want to fly the drone over a hill or into a valley, this difference must be considered.
- Permission is also required to fly the drone closer than 30 meters to uninvolved persons, buildings or other objects.
- It is not allowed to transport dangerous substances with his drone or even drop objects. Official permission is also required for such operations.
- When flying a drone, direct visual contact must always be maintained. If you want to launch a FPV (First Person View) drone, it is mandatory that a second person acts as an observer who maintains direct visual contact and keeps an eye on the surroundings. If you want to fly your drone without direct visual contact, you also need a special permit.
- You should only fly the drone during daylight hours, with a special permit for night flight.
- It is strictly prohibited to fly your drone intoxicated (alcohol or strong medication etc.).
- Those who disregard these rules can be fined up to 500,000 yen or can even be imprisoned.
- Before the flight, all important measures should be taken to ensure safety. This also means, knowing the weather conditions, inspecting the drone itself for visible damage, and updating the software to the latest version.
Receiving an approval from the MLIT
If you want to bypass some strict rules in the list above, you must apply for permission at least one month in advance. The reason for the flight, the place, the time and many other details are then specified in detail. You can also choose whether to specify only a single day, or a longer period with different locations. However, the more flexible you want to be, the longer it takes to process the application and the harder it is to get permission. Where you used to have to go through the hassle of submitting an application by mail, the MLIT now offers a very convenient way to apply for your permits.
On the site of the Drone/UAV Information Platform System (DIPS) you can submit your application relatively stress-free. And the best part is, the site is even available in English. After you have created an account, you can set the language to English each time you log in, making it much easier. I still did everything in Japanese for my first application, and I got my approval there, too.
In addition to entering pilot and drone data, you can also specify whether you already have a flight certification or drone insurance. These things are not necessary, but can be helpful for more difficult applications. Much of the application is self-explanatory, and if you do make a mistake, you will receive an email, so that you can adjust your application accordingly, thanks to tips and hints.
The main thing to note is that you are NOT allowed to enter a postal code for the address where you want to fly. If you do, you will get feedback that you should please adjust this after sending the application. On a map, you draw the area where you want to fly and also where you are located as a pilot. Here it is always better to enter a few more details.
Unfortunately, that was not all
Actually, the rules don't sound so problematic, do they? Especially when you consider how much nature and small places Japan has to offer. Now, unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Almost every spot in Japan falls under a certain jurisdiction, be it the sea around Japan, the rivers, the mountains, the national parks, the forests and so on. Therefore, it is important to do a little research in advance in this regard as well. A lot of information regarding prohibited zones can be found on the Internet.
And in order not to panic because many official sites are in Japanese, it helps to search for the name of the region and ドローン. For Kawaguchiko in Yamanashi Prefecture, this would be 河口湖ドローン. You can then read these pages thanks to a translator (the best way is to translate from Japanese to English). Tools like the translator integrated in Microsoft Edge have proven to be helpful after numerous tests. The website Deepl provides even better results.
So, depending on the case, you may need to contact local institutions and without Japanese language skills. This can be difficult, especially if you want to make contact via email or phone. However, online translators can help with that as well and even if sometimes you don't reach the right place right away, you usually get an answer with the necessary information.
This can sometimes seem a little nerve-wracking, yet there is no reason to panic. Doing a little more research in advance is helpful here.
Drone insurance and flight licence
For the case of a potential accident, it is advisable to get a drone insurance. This usually does not cost very much, but can save the pilot a lot of trouble in an emergency. Depending on the drone manufacturer, there is already the option of taking a temporary free insurance policy at the time of purchase. DJI offers this to all of its customers at the time of purchase for a period of one year. If you want to fly a drone in Europe, drone insurance is necessary anyway, so you only have to make sure that it is also valid when flying in Japan.
Also, a certificate that you are qualified to fly is not a bad thing to have. In Europe, this is mandatory for most aircraft, so this certificate can also help you in Japan. You can also get a small drone licence if you do not reside in the EU. In example for Germany you just have to go to the website of the Luftfahrt Bundesamt and register your drone and your insurance there. For the small drone licence, only an online training with a final exam is required. If you study carefully, this is not excessively difficult.
An important addition should be mentioned again at this point. It is planned that from 2022 all drones in Japan must be registered. This will be similar to the system in Germany, where a drone is registered and must have a registration number affixed. This will also make it easier to locate drones that are flying illegally.
Respect the environment and people
However, one rule is most important: fly your drone wisely and respect plants, wildlife and people. Even if you have a permit, or maybe you're flying in a place where you don't need one, keep an eye on your surroundings. Don't damage plants, don't fly too close to animals, and keep as much distance as possible from other people. Also avoid flying over others as this can cause discomfort and be dangerous. If people are in your immediate vicinity, politely inform them before your flight or wait until they have moved on.
If someone approaches you about the drone, with a request to land, or simply with interest in your hobby, don't get flustered. Don't lose sight of the drone and land it carefully, if possible, before you start a dialogue. With calmness, understanding and respect, you can have the most fun as a drone pilot. Always remember, only if you behave in an exemplary manner, people can gradually forget the worries and doubts regarding drones so that it can be considered a hobby like any other. Not only in the air, rules must be followed.