Photo/Illutration The Japan Coast Guard is considering acquiring the SeaGuardian unmanned aircraft. (Kuratoshi Yokoyama)

The Japan Coast Guard is test-flying a drone that could allow it to concentrate more personnel and equipment in waters near the Senkaku Islands where Chinese vessels have been increasingly active.

A test flight of the SeaGuardian was opened to the media in late October at the Maritime Self-Defense Force base in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture.

Having the drone patrol a wide part of the Pacific would allow the Japan Coast Guard to deploy more of its resources near the waters of increased Chinese activity, according to one official.

“(The SeaGuardian) can fly long distances at all times of the day," Takahiro Okushima, the Japan Coast Guard commandant, said at a news conference on Oct. 21. "We have expectations that it can be used for various duties of the Japan Coast Guard, including rescuing victims of accidents at sea, responding to natural disasters and cracking down on illegal activities.”

The SeaGuardian, manufactured by an arm of General Atomics of the United States, spans 11.7 meters in length and 24 meters in width. It can be remotely controlled by pilots on the ground, but the SeaGuardian also has the capability to self-pilot for all aspects of a flight including take-offs and landings.

The Japan Coast Guard has allocated 947.32 million yen ($9 million) for test flights of the SeaGuardian totaling about 150 hours off the Sanriku coast in northern Japan, over the Ogasawara chain of islands south of Tokyo as well as in the Sea of Japan.

Except for take-offs and landings, the aircraft will not fly over residential areas. The drone is equipped with infrared cameras and radars.

A General Atomics official said not only was the SeaGuardian safe to operate but that the unmanned aircraft had never caused a fatality in 6.5 million hours of flying time.

A Japan Coast Guard official said the drone can spot a car at sea level while flying at an altitude equivalent to the summit of Mount Fuji. But the tests will help confirm if it can read the identification numbers of ships as well as spot missing persons at sea, and avoid approaching aircraft.

One major advantage of the SeaGuardian is that it can be operated by a two-member crew, a pilot and search radar operator. If crews are rotated, the aircraft can remain airborne for about 35 hours consecutively.

The Japan Coast Guard has six long-range jets, but those are all manned by five-member crews, two pilots, a maintenance worker, communications operator and search radar operator. 

Regulations state that the jets can only be flown for up to eight hours. Maintenance work also forces the grounding of these aircraft at times.

The increased activity this year in the East China Sea around the Senkakus by Chinese ships has led the Japan Coast Guard to concentrate its resources in the region.

It has dispatched 12 large cutters to Ishigakijima island close to the Senkakus as well as Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture. Three surveillance jets have also been moved to Naha, but the aircraft have been used in other areas when maritime accidents or illegal fishing is suspected near the Ogasawara islands or Sea of Japan.