Stuck on a desert island with nothing to eat or drink? Just order drone delivery!

While Japan’s Sarushima (“monkey island”) may not fit the “desert island” description exactly, it is indeed uninhabited. Situated approximately 1.5km off the coast of Tokyo Bay, the island is a popular destination for fishing, picnics, barbecues and exploring wartime ruins, welcoming around 200,000 visitors each year.

But with just 0.055km of land and no permanent shops to speak of, island-goers often find themselves stuck without supplies, with an ocean between them and the nearest supermarket.

Japan’s Sarushima, meaning “Monkey Island” in Japanese, is the only natural island in Tokyo Bay.

Rakuten’s new island-hopping drone service is here to fix that. Partnering with Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu, a subsidiary of Walmart that also works with Rakuten on an online grocery delivery service, Rakuten Drone will soon fly groceries from the roof of the nearest supermarket in Yokosuka—a city on the southwest side of Tokyo Bay—directly to the Sarushima beach.

A Japan first

The service is the first in Japan to offer regular drone deliveries to consumers on a remote island. Available three days a week throughout the summer, shoppers can fire up an app and pay just 500 yen to have up to 5kg of a selection of 400 different products from Seiyu delivered—anything from raw meat and vegetables to beer and even first-aid supplies.

To help support robust deliveries, Rakuten has employed a new, larger drone, measuring in at an approximate 1.6m diameter with a 40-minute total possible flight time. Just like its little brother, the drone performs the entire operation autonomously, from takeoff, flight and landing, to releasing its package and returning to base.

Rakuten Drone General Manager Hideaki Mukai performed a live demonstration from the rooftop car park of the Yokosuka supermarket in front of a crowd of TV cameras and reporters.

Several dozen media crews traveled from Tokyo to cover the live demonstration.
Several dozen media crews traveled from Tokyo to cover the live demonstration.

Mukai placed his order through the app (a six-pack of Asahi Super Dry, some prime Angus beef for barbecuing and some first-aid supplies) whereupon two hard-hatted employees emerged to load the goods into the drone’s large red carry-box.

Once the all-clear was given, the drone ascended to a height of approximately 40m and set off on its pre-programmed course around a nearby crane and towards the island. Moving at 36km/h, it took the drone just two minutes to disappear into the horizon and five minutes to arrive safely at the landing platform on the Sarushima beach.

An important milestone

“Since we created Japan’s first drone delivery service open to the public back in April 2016, Rakuten has been a front runner in the drone delivery industry, conducting trials and services in more than 10 different locations,” Mukai told media at the event. “We want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to experience this revolutionary delivery technology.”

“For Rakuten, this is an extremely important milestone,” commented Rakuten Group Managing Executive Officer Koji Ando. “Our mission has always been to empower people and society through innovation,” he continued. “This time we chose Sarushima to make visiting the island more convenient and because flying over water is safer. But in the future, we want to help the many people in Yokosuka and around Japan who are isolated from logistics networks.”

The entire operation—takeoff, flight, landing, delivery and return—is performed autonomously.
The entire operation—takeoff, flight, landing, delivery and return—is performed autonomously.

Pioneering drone delivery

The Sarushima drone service is yet another chapter in Rakuten’s long history with delivery drones. In 2016, Rakuten launched the world’s first consumer-facing drone delivery service on a golf course outside Tokyo. Rakuten has since conducted trials delivering to depopulated islands in Ehime, to a local citizen’s backyard in Shizuoka and over an LTE connection in Chiba.

In late 2017, Rakuten ran regular drone deliveries from a convenience store to a recently unquarantined area near the Fukushima nuclear disaster, where residents were returning to a town devoid of shops or services. Rakuten has also trialed a kind of “drone highway,” allowing drones to fly long distances over power lines to areas difficult to access via regular transport methods.

Rakuten’s drone program is not only ambitious in its goal to push drone tech to the limit of what’s possible, but also in helping address the needs of people in Japan’s underpopulated and disaster-struck areas.

“There are still plenty of hurdles we need to clear,” Ando told the reporters gathered on the supermarket roof. “Drones still can’t fly over densely populated areas, and drone operators still need to maintain line of sight wherever they fly. But we’re actively working with drone experts and the government to work out the challenges so that Japan doesn’t fall behind other countries developing their own drone services.”

Mission accomplished! Having deposited the beef and beer, the delivery drone prepares to take to the skies.
Mission accomplished! Having deposited the beef and beer, the delivery drone prepares to take to the skies.