In 2016, Rakuten made history with a drone delivery service that was the first of its kind. Sora Raku debuted with drone deliveries of drinks and snacks to players at a golf course near Tokyo. Since then, more and more drones have taken to the skies in Japan and around the world. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration estimates there could be as many as 7 million drones flying regularly over the United States by 2020, up from 2.7 million last year.
With this increase comes the need for managing drone airspace. In February, Rakuten was part of a $26 million funding round for California-based AirMap, an airspace-management company that provides leading solutions for what’s known as unmanned traffic management (UTM). Founded in 2014, AirMap already supports approximately 100,000 drone flights every day.
UTM is an emerging business and technology focused on the low-altitude airspace in which drones operate, which in Japan is below 150 meters. Drone operators can use AirMap to plan safe routes and benefit from real-time airspace intelligence, including live alerts about nearby manned traffic, hyperlocal weather, first responder activities and more. Meanwhile, airports and other airspace stakeholders can use AirMap’s airspace management dashboard to open airspace to drones, view past and current drone flights, accept digital flight notices, and communicate with drone operators.
Today, Rakuten and AirMap have taken the partnership a step further by launching a joint venture headquartered in Tokyo. Rakuten AirMap Inc. will focus on localizing AirMap’s platform to drone airspace in Japan, including mapping the so-called “densely inhabited districts” (DIDs) in which drone flights are only allowed with government permission.
“By having this UTM tool, drone operators will be able to get permission to fly and airspace managers will know where they are flying. UTM is really needed for both the safety of drones and society,” says Sora Raku head Hideaki Mukai, who will be CEO and a representative director of Rakuten AirMap.
In a demo for Rakuten Today, Mukai logs on to the AirMap app, zooms in on a map showing his location in Tokyo, which incorporates a large DID. The nearest available drone airspace is to the south in Kawasaki City. He zooms into it and traces a possible drone flight path. With a few taps, the flight can be shared with peers and airspace managers.
“Hopefully in the near future, we can use this to create a navigation system for drone deliveries,” Mukai says. “The UTM system is not a form of regulation. The objective is to open up safe flying zones to operators.”
“We’re tremendously excited to partner with Rakuten to bring Unmanned Traffic Management capabilities to Japan,” says Air Map CEO and cofounder Ben Marcus, who is also a representative director of Rakuten AirMap. “Rakuten AirMap’s UTM solutions will connect airspace managers with drones and their operators – setting the stage for Japan’s commercial drone ecosystem to thrive.”