Drone highway. The name alone evokes a distant sci-fi-esque future, with flying cars snaking their way through impossibly tall neon-lit skyscrapers. While that particular scene may still be a ways off, a trio of innovative Japanese companies are taking a bold first step toward the creation of drone-friendly ‘highways.’

Rakuten is collaborating with TEPCO Ventures and Japanese mapping company Zenrin Co., Ltd., who are developing a drone highway concept utilizing TEPCO Group’s electrical infrastructure and Zenrin’s 3D maps of the sky. At a press conference in Tokyo earlier this month, the three companies announced that they had already carried out a successful demonstration of drone delivery using the system in June 2018.

Rakuten’s drone flying above a TEPCO tower in Chichibu, Saitama.

Rakuten’s drone flying above a TEPCO tower in Chichibu, Saitama.

In recent years, Rakuten has made a name for itself as a pioneer in the autonomous drone delivery industry. In May 2016, Rakuten Drone launched the world’s first drone delivery service for golfers on a golf course near Tokyo. The company has since made headlines for carrying out Japan’s first drone delivery to a private residence, trialing the first ever drone delivery over LTE and delivering groceries to disaster-struck areas in Fukushima.

Through its drone business, Rakuten has shown that air transport can be a compelling solution to many logistical problems faced by people in underpopulated and remote areas. However, Japan’s strict drone regulations mean that plans to make such services a mainstream commercial reality have been limited to date.

“Together with TEPCO and Zenrin, we have begun a revolutionary project to combine drone deliveries with drone highways – a world first,” said Rakuten group managing executive officer Koji Ando at the press conference in Tokyo.

This regulatory challenge is what TEPCO Ventures and Zenrin set out to solve when the two companies first teamed up in March 2017. TEPCO Group is Japan’s largest electrical utility, and its vast network of infrastructure spreads primarily across the Kanto metropolitan area (which includes the Greater Tokyo Area and encompasses seven prefectures). The airspace above this infrastructure — chiefly power transmission lines — is not subject to the same regulations as public airspace, meaning drone delivery services are a possibility.

Meanwhile, Zenrin’s advanced 3D mapping data of the airspace surrounding TEPCO Group’s infrastructure is used to create high-tech geofencing systems to stop the drones from going too near or straying too far from the powerlines. Weather observation instruments are also being installed on TEPCO Group infrastructure to ensure the drones are flying within their technical limits.

(From left) Shinji Akatsuka of TEPCO Ventures, Michio Takegawa of Zenrin and Koji Ando of Rakuten at the press conference in Tokyo.

(From left) Shinji Akatsuka of TEPCO Ventures, Michio Takegawa of Zenrin and Koji Ando of Rakuten at the press conference in Tokyo.

Safety is the top priority for the drone highways initiative, and with Rakuten on board, the team now has access to some of the most advanced drone safety technology available. Rakuten’s drones, developed in collaboration with Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd. (ACSL), particularly excel at maintaining stability in strong winds. The drones stop and hover upon detecting any flight irregularity, and the team recently implemented a parachute system to slow the descent of the drone in emergency cases.

Lunch was delivered with unprecedented efficiency for this Chichibu resident.

Lunch was delivered with unprecedented efficiency for this Chichibu resident.

The three companies announced that they had held a successful demonstration of the system last month in Chichibu, Saitama — a prefecture bordering the north side of Tokyo. The drone flew a total of three kilometers across four different sections of “highway” above transmission lines, delivering lunch to local residents participating in the trial.

The drone highway used in the Chichibu demonstration.

The drone highway used in the Chichibu demonstration.

“Rakuten has taken on many different challenges in the drone delivery industry so far,” said Rakuten managing executive officer Koji Ando at the press conference. “Together with TEPCO Ventures and Zenrin, we have begun a revolutionary project to combine drone deliveries with drone highways – a world first.”