New drone delivery trial sees groceries sent to isolated community in Iwate Prefecture

Rakuten chalked up another successful drone delivery trial last month, this time demonstrating the service’s ability to reach a remote mountainous location in Iwate Prefecture, where many elderly residents struggle to go shopping for food.

Having launched in September 2016, the Rakuten drone team aims to eventually provide sustainable delivery infrastructure where Japan’s conventional network cannot reliably operate. So far trial deliveries have been made to a remote island in Ehime, a local backyard in Shizuoka, a remote island in Tokyo Bay, and a disaster-struck area in Fukushima.

Preparing for the drone delivery trial, a Rakuten Drone UGV staff member receives food items at a roadside rest area in Iwaizumi Town.
Preparing for the drone delivery trial, a Rakuten drone team member receives food items at a roadside rest area in Iwaizumi Town.

The latest trial came about after the Iwate Prefecture government called for proposals from the private sector for solutions to assist its isolated residents. A drone delivery proposal by leading mapping company Zenrin Co., Ltd. was accepted, with the Rakuten team pitching in to develop the drone and implement flight operations. Zenrin provided a flight log verification system and three-dimensional flight routes based on obstacle location information.

The trial was conducted in the town of Iwaizumi, which encompasses extensive mountainous terrain and suffered heavy damage from Typhoon Lionrock in 2016. A 2015 survey by the Policy Research Institute, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, found that even before the typhoon as many as 40 percent of the town’s elderly residents had difficulty shopping for food items.

The “Tenku” drone is loaded with cargo ahead of a trial delivery flight.
The “Tenku” drone is loaded with cargo ahead of a trial delivery flight.

Some 10 airborne delivery flights were made during the trial, which was held over several days in February and early March. For each flight, the drone was loaded with locally made food items — such as yogurt at a roadside rest area — before making the 5-kilometer journey to the delivery site. The flight path took the drone directly over rugged mountainous terrain in order to avoid roads and other potentially populated areas. After landing in an uncultivated rice paddy, the drone was loaded with local produce before making its return flight to the rest area.

The flights were categorized as “level 3” under the Japanese national government’s current drone policy as they were made over unpopulated areas and took the drone beyond the line of sight of its take-off point. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s so-called “Roadmap for the Sky Industrial Revolution 2019” has encouraged “level 3” flights since 2018 and set a goal of allowing “level 4” flights, which will take place over populated areas, from 2022.

The delivery was captured by the Rakuten drone team.

The trial flights in Iwate were fully autonomous, taking advantage of the technologically advanced “Tenku” drone. Everything from taking off to arrival at the destination is activated with just one push of a button. The multi-rotor craft measures 1.17 meters in length and has a payload of up to 5 kilograms, though this time around its load was kept to 2 kilograms of foodstuffs.

Local residents receive their delivery.
Local residents receive their delivery.

Support for the trial was also provided by Iwaizumi Holdings Co., Ltd., who organized space for the trial and groceries.

The results of the trial will be fed back to the Iwate Prefecture government, which last year set up a special research group with local business and education-sector representatives in order to plan for the eventual deployment of drone delivery in the prefecture.

As Japan’s population continues to age and shrink, the problem of logistically isolated people is sure to grow – both in Iwate Prefecture and in many other parts of the country. By developing technology and expertise around drone delivery, Rakuten aims to provide a service that will contribute significantly to sustaining and improving quality of life.

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