Descending from the skies against a backdrop of pink-white cherry blossoms, a box full of soy sauce, ink, salt and coloring pencils became the first drone delivery to a private residence in Japan on Monday.

The magical scene took place in the backyard of a house in Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture, about 120 km southwest of Tokyo. A family of five had placed its order via the Rakuten Drone smartphone app while standing at the entrance of their home. Deposited by the drone, a pink Rakuten box weighing 1,410 grams was in their hands minutes later.

“This is really convenient because it takes us at least 20 minutes one to drive to the shopping area and usually an hour there and back,” said Hirotsugu Shimoda.  “If these were an established service, I would definitely use it.”

“It was really cool,” said Shimoda’s youngest son, Rui. “I hope the drone comes again.”

The family’s elderly neighbor also used the app to order croquettes and a bento boxed lunch, which landed in the yard about 15 minutes after the first order.

“I can still drive to go shopping but I should probably give up my license in two or three years,” said 86-year-old Shigeru Katayama. “I have high expectations for drone deliveries in the future.”

Developed in collaboration with Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd. (ACSL), the six-rotor, autonomous Tenku drone has quieter rotors and better range compared to the initial version, in addition to a parachute. It took off from a hot spring resort about 1 km away and flew for about five minutes over the Seto River to ferry the goods to the district of Setoya, located in an agricultural, mountainous area. Fujieda City teamed up with Rakuten’s drone delivery business for the achievement.

“We’re thrilled that this first drone delivery to a private property is taking place in our city,” said Kazuyuki Kono, vice mayor of Fujieda. “Our city has been putting efforts into a variety of fields including AI, ICT, and IoT, and we are now focusing on drones. Not only are they convenient, but they can be used to deliver medicine and supplies in times of emergency. We are now training a ten-person Fujieda City drone squad to handle drones themselves.”

Making inroads in rural Japan

Drone delivery services are being developed in Japan as a means to tackle issues such as disaster relief, isolated communities, an aging population and a shrinking workforce. The latest delivery is part of Rakuten’s drone business that began in 2016, when a Tenku drone made history by bringing golfers on the links equipment, drinks and snacks at a golf course located east of Tokyo.

In October 2017, Rakuten Drone began drone deliveries of convenience store goods to a community center in Minamisoma City, Fukushima Prefecture. The service is aimed at making life easier for those who have to travel long distances to shop in the area, which was devastated in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami as well as the ensuing disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

“There are regulations regarding drone use in cities, so we would like to move forward with deliveries in higher altitude areas such as this as well as isolated islands,” said Hideaki Mukai, general manager of Rakuten’s drone business. “Our mission is to empower people who are having difficulty shopping, and to make their lives more convenient.”

Urban drone delivery services by 2020?

The Rakuten Drone business is based on the three pillars of innovation for convenience, such as the golf course delivery service, supporting those who have difficulty going shopping, and infrastructure for disaster preparation.

As the shopping service becomes established, users could either rent or buy their own landing pads, according to Mukai, who is also CEO of drone traffic management startup Rakuten Airmap. Another possibility is that drones could forgo landing pads if they are equipped with an ultra-precise, 1-meter resolution positioning system known as the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), which Japan is due to roll out this year.

In order to accelerate commercial adoption of drones, the Japanese government will loosen regulations drawn up in 2015 and allow drone deliveries in remote areas this summer. While flying over people’s heads will be prohibited, operators will be allowed to fly the machines beyond their line of sight in mountainous areas and remote islands. The government move comes as it prepares to allow urban drone flights as early as 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.