Reaching over 2.8 km into the sky, the peak of Mt. Shirouma doesn’t seem like the kind of place you might expect an express delivery. That’s just the sort of challenge Rakuten’s drone team is ready to tackle.
A seven-hour trip in 15 minutes
In the summer of 2021, JP Rakuten Logistics conducted a two-month drone delivery trial around Mt Shirouma in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture. The result of a collaboration between 11 different organizations, including the local government, the trials marked the first time truly unmanned drone supply drops of this kind were conducted in Japan.
“Drone deliveries not only solve a logistical problem, but can also help create new jobs, and in turn contribute to rural revitalization.”Masato Tani, Senior Manager, Drone Business Section, Rakuten Group, Inc.
Similar to previous trials conducted with observers along the trail, a drone supplied by Rakuten climbed 1.6 km from the base of Mt. Shirouma to make supply deliveries to two mountain lodges popular with hikers near the mountain’s peak. The two lodges are normally only accessible via either helicopter or a seven-hour hike, making supply chain management for even basic items such as food a serious challenge.
Helicopter deliveries are expensive and can only be scheduled around twice a month, so lodges must predict what supplies they will require weeks in advance, taking into account the ever-present possibility that bad weather could postpone deliveries even further.
“The increasing costs of helicopter services combined with a decrease in the availability of the necessary equipment means that the lodges on the mountain’s peak face the danger of being stranded without access to supplies,” explains Masato Tani, Senior Manager of the Drone Business Section on the Rakuten Drone team. “Many of the challenges they were facing lined up with the goals of Rakuten Drone, so we thought we could be of assistance.”
Rakuten’s newest drone carries up to 7 kg of supplies, making the 10 km round trip in just 30 minutes — a far cry from the seven-hour hike it would otherwise require. In addition to medical supplies, the service has helped the two lodges to serve fresh fruits and vegetables — normally something of a luxury on the mountain.
More efficient than ever
The latest trial also saw major improvements in operational efficiency. “We were able to operate the deliveries with a team of just two people.” Tani reports. The efficient operation represents a significant improvement over the previous year’s trials, which required upwards of 10 people attending each flight — including as many as seven observers.
“By making unmanned delivery systems a reality, we want to help those stranded by existing logistics networks, build new emergency infrastructure and create new convenience.”Masato Tani
“Japan’s drone regulations were relaxed in March of this year,” Tani shares. “This allowed us to make air drops from a height of one meter or less, without needing an observer present. Air dropping the packages not only saves energy but also eliminates any challenges presented by the terrain where the drone would otherwise need to land and then take off again.”
A locally driven operation
The involvement of local businesses is one of the key pillars of Rakuten’s drone efforts. While Rakuten provided the drone solutions, the operation team for this trial was made up entirely of project members from the area.
“Empowering locals to run drone programs themselves is extremely important,” Tani emphasizes. “We provide the training and support to local businesses so that they can go ahead and operate their own delivery programs with local interests at heart.”
While many rural areas in Japan suffer from demographic challenges such as depopulation, some also find themselves cut off from major logistics networks. For these areas, having access to drone services is not only convenient, but also serves as vital infrastructure in times of disaster.
“The national government is opening up regulations to help promote the development of drone services like this…Regulations and technology need to work hand in hand in order for drone deliveries to become mainstream.”Masato Tani
“Drone deliveries not only solve a logistical problem, but can also help create new jobs, and in turn contribute to rural revitalization.”
A dream of everyday drones
Tani is determined to see drone deliveries become part of everyday life, and he and his team have a clear vision of just what it will take.
“The national government is opening up regulations to help promote the development of drone services like this,” Tani says. “But going forward, I think advancing drone technology will be just as important. Regulations and technology need to work hand in hand in order for drone deliveries to become mainstream.”
Until then, the team is focused on running trial services and getting operational experience under their belt, something they have made continuous progress on since their first drone delivery on a golf course back in 2016.
“By making unmanned delivery systems a reality, we want to help those stranded by existing logistics networks, build new emergency infrastructure and create new convenience.”