Fried chicken took to the skies over Fukushima Prefecture in northern Japan this week as Rakuten began drone deliveries of products from Lawson convenience stores. Forget meals on wheels, this is meals on rotors.
The new free service from Rakuten’s drone business is aimed at delivering items from convenience stores to customers who find it challenging to travel long distances in order to shop. The service launched on October 31 in Fukushima’s Minamisoma City, an area that was devastated by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami as well as the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant that followed.
Since 2013, Lawson has been operating mobile sales points in the form of trucks that make regular visits to locations around its stores in some regional areas, thereby making it easier for customers to shop. The trucks are stocked with some 300 kinds of products, including everything from ice cream and bento lunch boxes to garbage bags and magazines, but they are unable to carry hot food. In this new service launched at a convenience store in Odaka, Minamisoma, Rakuten’s drone business addresses that problem by allowing hot food to be delivered to the mobile sale point from the store as soon as an order is received.
At a ceremony to mark the service’s first flight, a local resident placed an order for fried chicken while the truck was parked at the Oya Community Center, located in a rural part of the city. Soon after, a buzzing sound was heard as the drone appeared overhead. In moments, its payload of hot chicken was delivered to the customer’s waiting hands.
Rebuilding with high tech
“This community has been in a weakened state, but starting with Odaka, we believe the drone and other technology can play a role in helping people who face challenges going shopping or receiving medical care,” Minamisoma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai said in remarks at the ceremony. “My hope is that experiments with drones, autonomous driving and other technologies can lend a big push toward reconstruction following the nuclear accident.”
Sakurai became famous for his YouTube plea for help during the 2011 disaster. He has been outspoken in his efforts to rebuild Minamisoma, whose population has fallen from 71,000 before the disaster to around 57,000 today. As part of the revitalization efforts, the city in 2016 created a Robot Testing Field, in which robotics and other technologies can be developed for the monumental task of decommissioning the crippled Dai-ichi plant as well as other purposes. Other attendees also hailed the drone flight.
“It is said that this is an industrial revolution of the sky,” said Hiroshi Oikawa of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. “I am so happy that it is starting from Minamisoma in Fukushima.”
“Since our founding, Rakuten aimed to empower communities and empower Japan,” said Koji Ando, Rakuten Managing Executive Officer and president of the New Service Development Company. “We would like people to get a sense of a bright and convenient future through this service.”
In a world first, Rakuten launched its drone delivery service in 2016, beginning with trials in which its Tenku drone brought equipment, drinks and snacks to players on a golf course in Chiba. In early 2017, Rakuten Drone partner Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd. (ACSL) delivered hot soup to surfers on a beach in Fukushima after a record-breaking flight of about 12 km.
The latest version of the Tenku drone features quieter propellers and greater range compared to previous versions. It flew about 2.7 km for the fried chicken delivery, mostly following a river as it flew inland.
While the service currently offers deliveries of hot products, it is planned that others will be added later, provided the drones can accommodate them. There is no extra charge for the drone deliveries.
“People here have been totally amazed by getting products from the sky,” commented Rakuten Airmap CEO Hideaki Mukai. “We would like to expand the service, while keeping in mind drone safety, as well as public acceptance. Because of the situation facing Minamisoma, people here have been quite accepting of drone flights.”