Drones are getting big in Japan
Japan tightened the drone regulations last year after a series of unfortunate events. A 15-year-old boy accidentally flew his drone into a crowd during a festival, a drone caught on fire during a bike race, and then a guy flew his drone straight into a castle. Then some genius decided to fly a drone full of radioactive sand over the Japanese prime minister’s house in Tokyo. Not surprisingly the government reacted with an over-the-top legislation that severely restricted the use of consumer drones in major cities across Japan. The Japanese police started an anti-drone unit that uses big drones with large nets to capture smaller drones…poor little drones.
The saying “bad press is better than no press” doesn’t fly in Japan. Bad PR can negatively affect your brand, and Japanese consumers are particularly sensitive about security and safety. Take McDonald’s, for example, who had their whole pink slime chicken-nugget fiasco last year. They took a very big hit and had to actually shut down restaurants which are simply unheard of for large brand like the golden arches. They’re slowly recovering now, but you get my point.
Allow me to contradict myself. The radioactive drone incident was a good thing for the drone market in Japan. Why? It put the concept of drones on the radar. The average person in Japan now knows what they are. I’d estimate category awareness to be over 80%, DJI playing a big part as they are the primary manufacturer. You can buy a range of drones, from small all the way to a DJI Inspire 2 (retail 2k USD) at most large electronic stores (namely, Yodobashi and Bic Camera) in Tokyo.
Flying drones in Japan is not seen as dangerous. Ask any Japanese person and most of them think flying drones is pretty cool. Last time I flew my Phantom 4 at a wedding, people were amazed. Seeing a drone fly for the first time is an experience in itself, and I had a crowd of people asking me questions and asking if they could fly it. You get the same reaction pretty much anywhere. The price tags are still steep and regulations are tight so most people don’t own them — they are a luxury/novelty, but everyone knows what they are.
Generally speaking there will not be many signs or written rules for where you can or cannot fly drones. If you find a big open space in Tokyo (which is rare) then perhaps no one will bother you. But in the past few months, I’ve seen signs like this one on the right appear in more densely populated areas. I assume this was a necessary response to people trying to whip out their flying machines in the middle of crowded intersections. My hunch is that Steve Aoki was the culprit here — that guy is always looking for new ways to take selfies.
DJI (largest drone manufacturer in the world) entered the Japanese market a couple of years ago but have been growing slowly, mostly due to the drone regulations in Japan. And things really do take a while to pick up in Japan. While technologically advanced in many ways (robots that pour beer for you), you won’t find Uber, Airbnb or bitcoin used widely in Japan…yet. Drones are in this category of “cool” but niche products/services that are used mostly by hobbyists and some businesses. On a side note, I really love DJI and the brand they’ve built. So far they are the only company that is coming out with mass-produced, reliable consumer drones. Keyword — reliable. There has been a lot of hype about autonomous drones that follow you while you snowboard or run. The Go Pro Karma drone is the best example of this, as they were recalled 1 month after launch after reports of malfunction. Big fail. As many are discovering, designing and producing a high-quality drone is no walk in the park.
The Japanese government has generally been friendly towards drones for business use. There is a range of companies that are using drones for construction projects (Hitachi and Komatsu), land surveying, and building inspections. Normally these projects require heavy labor, lots of people, time and money. With drones, the resources can be drastically reduced to one trained pilot, a drone, and a few hours. Projects that once took one week can be done in a couple of days. They’re faster, cheaper, and safer.
One of the big B2B drone players in Japan includes Terradrone, which was started in Tokyo but already expanding overseas. They work on mostly construction projects. Rakuten (Japan’s largest e-commerce site) has experimented with drone delivery on golf courses, delivering golf balls, food and drinks to golfers. They’ve piloted the service at Camel Golf Course in Chiba but haven’t expanded beyond as far as I know. We can now officially add “golf caddie” to the list of at-risk jobs in the next 5 years.
Prime Minister Abe has been vocal about supporting the drone industry and thinks it’s kind of a big deal. In fact, he sees it as part of the next industrial revolution. He’s created “deregulated zones” where the laws are a bit more lenient. Chiba prefecture (southeast of Tokyo) is the largest of these zones and might soon be a test facility for Amazon’s drone projects.
The lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is instigating some interesting discussions and opening new doors in Japan. Visa restrictions have loosened in Japan. The yen is weak, meaning it’s more affordable for you if you’re coming from the US or Europe. There is demand for “global” talent and education in Japan, which is creating an environment more friendly towards foreigners. Getting a loan is easier. Travel here is cheaper because of discounted flights fuelled by government incentives. This includes the new infrastructure in Tokyo — everything from free wifi to signs in English. New economic zones and programs make it easier to be an entrepreneur in Japan. Going back to drones — regulations are tight now but I’m optimistic about the future. It’s simply good timing for Japan, and the Japanese government will eventually have to listen, and open to consumers and businesses.
Lastly, for those who are looking for flying drones in Japan, here are the basics to get you going.
Japan Drone Regulations
The general rule is that you can’t fly drones in heavily populated areas. This means that hobby drones are banned across Tokyo’s 23 wards. The restrictions also state that flights must remain a distance of 30 meters (98 ft) from people, trains, buildings and cars. And airports — that goes without saying. Drone flight is banned entirely over large crowds such as sporting events and festivals. Here is a more detailed list of regulations.
Where to fly drones in Japan?
The best resource I have found thus far is DJI’s map that shows fly zones (green) and no-fly zones (red). Check it out here. The other map available (all in Japanese) is Sorapass. I’ve also contacted several golf courses, venues, wedding halls, parks, etc. to inquire about drone permissions and have created a list of drone-friendly locations here.
Drone Flying Permissions
If you are unsure whether or not you can fly at a certain venue then you should simply ask the venue/building owner. Many places are actually cool with it, especially outside of Tokyo.
There is no such thing as a “drone license.” However, if you would like to fly in a restricted zone (red on the maps above), you’ll have to get permission from the government. There is a lengthy document that you have to fill out online and send to them by post. Last time I tried to get permission there was a 3-4 week wait as they were “flooded with requests.” I suggest sending it far in advance. The guys at Sorapass can help you with sending these documents, for a price. Some of them speak English despite the site being all in Japanese.
I’ve been able to transport my drone on airplanes, both in the country and flying outside, with no hassle or issue from customs or security. I always took it as a carry-on and I wouldn’t recommend checking it as there’s a higher chance of damage.
Drone Purchase / Rental
Rental? There are several businesses offering drones for rental. And of course, at Seranova , we provide drones for rental with guidances and support in English!
Practice and Training
There are a few indoor and outdoor drone courses that allow you to bring your drone for a small fee. Especially if you are just getting started it’s probably a good idea to check out one of these facilities, and is also a great place to meet drone enthusiasts. Here is a list of a few for better flying drones in Japan.
- Drone Enterprise
- Drone Kentei
- Tokyo Drone Academy — mostly in Japanese but they provide a safe training facility and lessons
- Meetupdotcom drone clubs – there are a couple of drone meet ups in Tokyo. They rotate locations and sometimes fly
A quick note: Personally speaking I don’t think you need to go to any of these schools to get certified, unless you are practicing for drone races. If you’re a hobbyist you’re better off taking your drone out to west Tokyo.
Drone Pilots for Rent
Drone Agent — This is a platform that matches drone pilots to projects. Right now their site is in Japanese but some of their staff speak English. I met with their CEO Taoshita-san and he’s a passionate, young entrepreneur that started this business from scratch. They’re the most reliable drone pilot service I’m aware of in Japan!
Have others you’d like me to add to the list? Feel free to drop me a message — firstname.lastname@example.org