Legal restrictions and safety precautions are threatening to stand in the way of Japan's plan to bolster its surveillance capabilities.
The Defense Ministry requested 200 million yen ($2 million) for research in the fiscal 2014 budget, with an eye on introducing at least one unmanned surveillance aircraft in fiscal 2015.
The candidate being considered is the RQ-4 Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman of the United States. It can fly for more than 28 hours at an altitude of 18 kilometers.
The ministry plans to strengthen Japan's warning and surveillance of activities of North Korea and China with remote-controlled aircraft.
The Global Hawk, capable of gathering intelligence for many hours over wide areas, is expected to monitor North Korean ballistic missiles or Chinese aircraft approaching the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Currently, P-3C patrol aircraft and destroyers of the Maritime Self-Defense Force are responsible for surveillance around the southwestern Nansei Islands, including the Senkakus.
The introduction of the Global Hawk would substantially expand Japan's geographical surveillance reach.
A primary potential constraint for the deployment of unmanned surveillance aircraft will be the Civil Aeronautics Law, which restricts the flight of such vehicles over Japan.
The law defines aircraft as manned fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters and other vehicles. Unmanned helicopters used for crop dusting, aerial photography and other purposes fall under a different category.
Unmanned helicopters can only fly at low altitudes over unpopulated land. In principle, they are not allowed to fly over airports and surrounding areas.
“I suspect that the Global Hawk will be able to fly only over exercise areas if things remain unchanged,” a senior SDF official said.
Measures to ensure safety will be required to enable unmanned aircraft to share the airspace with manned aircraft, according to the transport ministry, which holds jurisdiction over the Civil Aeronautics Law.
Key issues will include whether ground-based operators can watch out for and avoid dangers, as well as pilots of manned aircraft, and how to control unmanned aircraft when wireless communications from the ground are cut off.
“We will make efforts to ensure safe flight based on specific operational procedures for unmanned aircraft,” a Defense Ministry official said.
In May, Germany gave up plans to develop a Euro Hawk unmanned aircraft equipped with original sensors after failing to design a reliable collision avoidance system.
It is said Germany concluded that hundreds of millions of euros would be required, on top of the 500 million euros (65 billion yen) already spent, to improve the system to levels that could obtain approval for flight over the country.
Japan has begun research on sophisticated infrared sensors for unmanned surveillance aircraft. It could face the same problem as Germany if the sensors are to be installed on the Global Hawk.
The U.S. military has used unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, not only for surveillance, but also for attacks.
Washington plans to sell four Global Hawks to South Korea. Russia, China, Israel and other countries are also developing unmanned aircraft.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, which decides global aviation regulations, started research on how to deal with unmanned aircraft. But standards are not expected to be established in the near future.
Last year, the United States announced plans to integrate the airspace for manned and unmanned aircraft within its borders by September 2015.
Unmanned aircraft are not allowed to fly over urban areas or where large numbers of manned aircraft fly. Their missions are limited to firefighting, border patrols, military exercises and other purposes.
While aviation authorities are selecting areas for experimental integration, residents have expressed concerns about privacy infringement. One reason is that police have shown interest in using unmanned aircraft for their operations.
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