- Drone Encounters
- The Drone Law
- Drone Owner Tommy
- DJI Drone Store Manager Mr. Sakurai
- Creating a flight plan
Commercial drones have been in use by professionals and hobbyists for more than ten years now. Five years ago, I saw my first drone while visiting Gunkanjima or Battleship Island near Nagasaki, hovering high up outside one of the ruined buildings. Seeing one with my own eyes made me very intrigued by these fancy gadgets. Two years later, while hiking in Chiba, I came across a person operating a small drone above the rice fields.
Later the same year, at a shrine at the base of Mt Daisen in Tottori prefecture, I had a less pleasant encounter. A drone was hovering in the sky, but I couldn’t see the pilot. At one point, the craft came to a stop about ten meters above my head. Scared of what would happen if it suddenly dropped out of the sky, I quickly darted out of the way. I could only assume that the pilot didn’t realise I was there.
Drone flying in the sky near the base of Mt Daisen in Tottori prefecture
I had one more encounter last year in the forested area north of Mt Bandai in Fukushima prefecture. It was past sunset and getting dark, when I spotted some lights hovering a meter above the path ahead. It wasn’t a UFO, but a small drone with its lights on. The user was behind it, as if walking a dog. I caught up with him near a small lake. He flew the drone out over the lake and back. However, on the return, he lost control, and, fortunately for us, it crashed into the trees a few meters behind us.
Drone crash-landing into the forest near the base of Mt Bandai
The Drone Law
This latest encounter made me reflect that while a drone is a fun toy to play with, and a cool gadget for taking movies, it has the potential to injure others, if one isn’t careful. At first, drones were very lightly regulated in Japan, prohibited only near airports and flight paths. After an anti-nuclear protester landed a drone with radioactive, but harmless sand near the prime minister’s office in 2015, a drone law was passed the same year, regulating what kind of drones could be flown, as well as when and where.
The main consequence of the drone law is that it’s no longer allowed to fly a drone in most of Tokyo prefecture (including parks), unless you apply for permission from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport. This needs to be done at least ten days in advance. Although assistance is provided for non-Japanese speakers, this cumbersome process basically means that it’s no longer practical for hobbyists to fly a drone in the capital. Other densely populated areas in Japan have also become no-fly zones. The fine for breaking this law is a whooping 500,000 yen.
Even if you become familiar with the current drone law, new laws are constantly being added so it can be hard to keep up. In June this year, the government made operating a drone after drinking alcohol a crime. On top of this, local towns have been passing their own drone regulations, so it’s a good idea to double-check with the local authorities every time you want to fly your drone in a different place.
Drone Owner Tommy
Despite the flood of regulations, there has been a rise in the number of incidents of drones being illegally flown in downtown Tokyo, mostly by tourists unaware of the strict regulations. This made me want to get a better understanding of the fascination with flying drones, as well as where to fly one, and how to do it safely.
While working on a previous project for Tadaima Japan, I met with media creator Tommy from the USA, who also happens to own a drone, and he was happy to answer a few questions by email.
What made you decide to buy a drone in the first place?
I love all new tech and gadgets and always wanted a drone. When the company DJI announced their then new MAVIC PRO I knew I had to have it. Being foldable and so easy to use, my imagination ran wild with ideas on what to do with it!
How was your first time flying a drone?
Upon buying my drone, the Japanese government shortly made drone flights in Tokyo illegal… I just spent 140,000 yen on something I couldn’t use? No way! so I went to a nearby park to learn how to fly it and test its features.
Trying to fly in a small park with a few people gathering to check it out, I tightened my flight distance which causes me to crash it into two nearby trees.
I flew it in America after Japan, and I flew it in very wide areas that allowed me to fully check it out. It was a blast flying it in the wide open! I even had a cop at a popular beach stop by to watch me fly. I even let him fly it. Thought for sure I would be stopped.
Can you recommend any good spots for flying a drone?
Well, Tokyo is a definite no fly zone, so not here at all.
I went on a hike with some friends outside of Nara a couple of years back, and it was great flying in different environments like over a river, over open rice fields, and above me on a small mountain.
Have you ever applied for permission to fly your drone in Tokyo?
For a promo video for my old company, I flew my drone without permission or a permit to shoot some exterior video. One staff member who was over-paranoid about drone footage, applied for a permit to fly in Shibuya.
Apparently it was a quick and painless process for them. Not sure how much it cost them though. I had to provide the maker and model, and some stats on what the drone could do, like max height, speed, carry weight, and so on.
What tips on flying drones can you share with our readers?
Go practice somewhere safe and away from any potential audiences. Little Japanese kids are quite wowed by them and will make a big deal out of your flying camera. I’ve also found the elderly quite curious about them as well. When you’re trying to be as incognito as possible, this can only hurt you.
I’ve heard and read horror stories about flying without a permit, so get one if you’re doing any professional work.
Go and travel to the countryside to learn how to fly your drone. Even if you have some local empty parks, it isn’t worth risking losing your quite pricey drone.
Do you have any positive or negative stories about flying a drone in Japan?
I have shared that I have a drone with people, and people typically bring up the issue with the guy who landed his drone on top of a politician’s house. This lack of information and education leads to a bad image for drones and drone pilots.
How do you think the situation can be improved?
I think drone companies could hold some large public events that let people try out drones and teach about drone safety. This or even professional drone pilots offering courses. But if laws will change, hmmmm… I am pretty sure they won’t.
DJI Drone Store Manager Mr. Sakurai
After my exchange with Tommy, I contacted a DJI drone store in Tokyo. With 70% of the world market, DJI is the world’s leading drone manufacturer. They are a Chinese company based in the city of Shenzhen. Last year while visiting Hong-Kong, I made a short trip there. I was surprised to see whole sections of electronic stores dedicated to drones of all shapes and sizes. The staff even flew small ones freely around to attract customers!
The store manager, Mr. Sakurai, quickly agreed to be interviewed for this article, since he was keen on raising awareness of drones rules in Japan. After we arrived at the store, it turned out that none of the employees spoke English. One of the shop staff does speak English but that person wasn’t working the day of our visit. On such days, they use a handheld translator device to communicate with non-Japanese customers; one such exchange happened during our interview, and it seemed to go smoothly. Below is a condensed translation of our very interesting one-hour discussion.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am from Chiba prefecture. I started working here 2 years ago. The store itself opened in 2016. Before working here, I was building stage sets for live performances at venues such as Tokyo Dome. I own a DJI Phantom drone, replaced by the Mavic 2 Pro in the current lineup, which I fly almost every weekend in Chiba.
What do you like about flying a drone?
I like the bird’s-eye view you get from the drone’s camera. Also, I find that it’s a good way to relieve stress.
How can a drone owner find out where to fly a drone in Tokyo, outside the non-restricted areas?
What I am going to tell you is quite new, and probably few people know about it, but since last month, before you can even fly your drone, you have to first register your personal information, and details about your drone, on a website managed by the Ministry of Infrastructure, Land and Transport.
After that you must create a flight plan for your drone on the website. This is not just in Tokyo but everywhere in Japan, including non-restricted areas. So far, there is no English version of the website.
That is very interesting information – can you tell us more?
The law was passed this year in April, and came into effect on July 24th. The idea is that if a policeman sees you flying a drone, he can check the website to see if everything is in order.
If you fly your drone without doing this, it’s at your own risk, but the maximum penalty is the same as flying as not following the drone law: half a million yen. It’s so new, I haven’t had a chance to try this website for myself yet.
Once I’ve done this, there are still many places that are off-limits to flying drones…
Our website has an interactive map so you can easily find places where you can fly your drone, as long as all the other conditions are met.
When you first look at the map, it shows airports and flight paths in light blue, which are 100% non-flight zones, and drone parks where one can fly a drone for a fee, in light green. After checking the “その他” box below, the restricted areas, mostly densely populated areas, appear in red. As you can see, most of Tokyo is in red.
What’s a good spot for flying a drone near Tokyo?
Hayama beach near Zushi in Kanagawa Prefecture is known as a good spot among Drone owners. It takes an hour by train from Shinjuku and then about 20 minutes by bus.
Isn’t it a problem when too many drones are flown in the same area?
That’s true – if there are too many people, there can be interference with the video. If there are more than 3 people inside a 30-meter diameter circle, it’s better not to fly your drone.
That is indeed one benefit of making a flight plan on the website – you can see how many people are flying their drones in the same place at the same time. If it’s too crowded you can choose a different place.
Is there another place you can recommend?
I haven’t tried it myself but my friend sent me this picture of a signboard at a place called “Mt Fuji Sky Ground”. It’s a “Drone airport” where one is allowed to fly a drone, for a small fee. You still need to register on the website I mentioned earlier.
Do you have any stories about people you know who got in trouble after flying a drone?
It seems that one of our Japanese customers once got into trouble, even though we make sure to carefully explain the law to all our customers [there is an English sign for non-Japanese customers in the store and English information on their website].
A drone had been flown near the rainbow bridge in Odaiba – a definite no-fly zone – and had crashed into a nearby building. The police contacted us with the serial number, and we had to give them the buyer information. We don’t know what happened after that.
What advice can you give for flying a drone safely?
First, never fly your drone directly above people. Next, if you aren’t on public land, ask permission from the land owner beforehand.
That’s good advice. Even though you are not really trespassing, the area above the land, up to a certain height, also belongs to the land owner.
Another thing to be aware of is that the drone’s movements are controlled by GPS. If you are flying a drone along a narrow valley, the GPS signal can bounce off the sides, and this will confuse the sensors resulting in a loss of control. So always make sure that nothing can interfere with the GPS signal.
That’s very interesting – I didn’t realise that drones depended so strongly on GPS signal reception.
Finally, do you have a message for our readers who want to fly a drone in Japan?
Please don’t fly drones in the Tokyo area. I understand there are many good videos to be taken there, but it would be a shame to ruin your trip because you were stopped by the police.
There are still many places you can fly your drone within the law, so please enjoy them and have a good trip to Japan.
Afterwards, Mr. Sakurai kindly gave us a short demonstration on how to operate a drone, and even let me operate one myself. Inside the store, the drone is limited to up and down movements and rotating on itself, using its GPS signal. We even tried moving it by hand: the drone gently floats back to the center of the pattern once released, so it’s perfectly safe – just be careful of the rotating blades.
I was surprised at how easy it was to control such a large object from a distance, and I felt a thrill at getting the drone into the right position for taking photos and a movie. After thanking Mr. Sakurai and leaving the store, I had a feeling I might be back one day in order to buy a drone of my own!
Creating a flight plan
After hearing about the drone flight plan registration site from Mr Sakurai, I decided to give it a try, even though I don’t own a drone (yet). Registering your personal details was the hardest part, since the information needs to be entered in Japanese characters – this is one step where you will need assistance from a Japanese person.
Once I was registered, I could access a map of Japan showing all the drones that were supposed to be in the air at the moment. I could see the other users’ emails and drone models. This was quite interesting: there seemed to be one flying above Shibuya – I assumed they had obtained permission, and were doing some professional work.
Next I had to register a drone, so I used the details provided by an acquaintance. Finally, I created a fictive flight plan to test the system. After selecting a location on the map, some basic drawing tools allow you to fashion a rough shape that should encompass your flying route. Once that is complete, you need to set the flying altitude (under 150m), the date and time (the same day is OK), and the duration.
Next, I was required to answer a series of questions to make sure that I wasn’t breaking any laws, like “Is the flight occurring within visual line of sight?” Interestingly (or weirdly), these questions are in English, but the “yes” and “no” buttons are in Japanese. Then, as if it weren’t confusing enough, the final question, asking whether you are following local laws, is all in Japanese.
After submitting the flight plan, you will get a message reminding you of the main points of the drone law, in Japanese and in English, after which you can fly the drone almost immediately – no approval is necessary. I tried it for a few seconds, the drone position appearing as a marker on the map, before I ended the flight.
If you are interested in flying a drone in Japan, make sure to read more about Japan’s drone laws and regulations.
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