Photo (left to right): AirMap CEO Ben Marcus, Rakuten AirMap CEO Hideaki Mukai, Rakuten AirMap VP of Business Development Takayuki Kageyama and Chiba City National Strategic Special Zone Bureau Chief Katsuyoshi Ino celebrate the launch of the Rakuten AirMap service in Japan and its adoption by Chiba City at a press event on Dec. 7.

In October, Rakuten began delivering food via drone in northern Japan as it continued to push the limits of drone business. Now, drone usage is set to reach cruising altitude as Rakuten AirMap launches an unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform for Japan that connects drone operators with airspace managers.

The new service lets drone operators search for areas where drones can be flown, log their flight plans, view relevant rules and check weather data such as wind speed and wind direction. It was developed by California-based AirMap, a partner with Rakuten in the Rakuten AirMap joint venture that was established in March 2017.

“Japan’s drone ecosystem is thriving,” AirMap CEO Ben Marcus told a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday. “Drones are already being put to work to assist with commerce, agriculture and other critical industries, and drone deliveries will soon be a reality even in Japan’s densest areas.”

Market boom

The service comprises an app for use by drone operators and also the Airspace Management Dashboard, which is aimed at airspace managers. These could be staff at organizations such as universities with a sizable premises or local governments who oversee drone traffic in areas where flights are permitted. Using the dashboard, managers can set airspace boundaries for a given flight zone and any related rules. They can also approve flight plan submissions and communicate with drone operators via SMS.

The AirMap app lets drone operators search for areas where drones can be flown, log their flight plans, view relevant regulations and check weather data such as wind speed and wind direction.

The AirMap app lets drone operators search for areas where drones can be flown, log their flight plans, view relevant regulations and check weather data such as wind speed and direction.

Aside from food in northern Japan, Rakuten has supported a number of experimental drone deliveries including snacks and golfing goods at a golf course in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo. Drone use is expected to expand rapidly over the next few years. According to Tokyo-based research firm Impress Corporation, the drone market is expected to grow from ¥22.2 billion in 2017 to ¥140.6 billion in 2022, with agriculture, inspection and surveying as major applications.

Drone users, however, face a number of challenges – and it is those that the AirMap UTM platform can address. One of the most pressing is confusion about flight zones and permissions.

“We’ve heard from many drone operators who are eager to fly that they’re not sure if they can and where they have to apply to get permission,” said Hideaki Mukai, CEO of Rakuten AirMap. “We want to solve these issues with IT, open up the skies to drones and enable communication between operators and airspace managers.”

Chiba City, Japan’s drone hotspot

On the airspace management side, AirMap can help attract drone-related businesses, promote the safe use of drones and ease the burden of management tasks, according to Takayuki Kageyama, Rakuten AirMap VP of business development. In one example cited by Marcus, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently began a pilot program in which air traffic control systems are using AirMap to provide automated drone flight plan authorization in controlled airspace.

Chiba City, the capital of Chiba Prefecture, will become Japan’s first municipality to deploy a UTM system when it launches the AirMap Airspace Management Dashboard for three test fields in the city designated for commercial-use drones. The city-owned fields are in sparsely populated areas east of central Chiba and flights are set to begin December 13, 2017.

The city has been at the forefront of drone development in Japan. In November 2016, Chiba was the site of the world’s first drone delivery operated via the smartphone LTE network. The drone was controlled by a Rakuten staffer 40 km away at Rakuten Crimson House and delivered a book and battery to the city’s mayor. Chiba Prefecture envisions drone deliveries from Rakuten Fulfillment Center on Tokyo Bay to Makuhari New City, a distance of 10 km.

“Through the use of test fields, we hope that drones will be used in various applications in the future,” said Katsuyoshi Ino, bureau chief of Chiba City’s National Strategic Special Zone. “In conjunction with technological advances, we see the UTM system as key in the realization of safe drone flights.”