The great Japanese Alps stretch from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Sea of Japan, dividing Japan into east and west. At the northern tip of this mountain range towers Mt. Shirouma—and nestled in the valley below it, lies the village of Hakuba.
While avid skiers may recognize Hakuba as a prime destination for Japan’s famous powder snow, during the off-season the town is a hotspot for hikers looking to climb Mt. Shirouma. Unlike the surrounding ski fields, the peak of Mt. Shirouma is accessible neither by road nor gondola, making the mountain huts that sit atop it an exciting destination for serious mountaineers.
However, this lack of accessibility also presents serious logistical challenges for the operators of those very mountain huts. Dangerous trails make delivery of supplies on foot impractical, while helicopter flights are extremely expensive and can be impossible in poor weather.
Thankfully, one team of high-flying Rakuten engineers thinks it has the solution: drones.
A mile straight up into the sky
From August to September 2020, Rakuten Drone operated test deliveries between the peak of Mt. Shirouma and the valley below. Together with the Hakuba Mountain Drone Logistics Committee—a group of 11 companies and organizations including the village of Hakuba—the team sent Rakuten drones over a horizontal distance of around 5km and vertical distance of 1.6km—the longest vertical distance over which a drone has ever delivered anything in Japan.
Receiving the deliveries were the Hakuba Sanso and Hakubadake Chojoshukusha huts, which sit near the peak of Mt. Shirouma at an altitude of 2,832m and 2,730m, respectively. The Rakuten Drone team showed off the reliability and versatility of their flying machines by delivering up to 5kg of supplies each way—including fragile fruit such as peaches and pears—making stops at both locations before returning to the Sarukuraso Lodge at an altitude of 1,250m.
On foot, supply runs typically take around seven hours along Mt. Shirouma’s perilous mountain trails. For Rakuten’s drone, the trip was an easy 15 minutes.
Challenges only drones can solve
The Hakuba committee has been searching for reliable ways to keep their mountaintop huts supplied since 2018. Navigating the complex airspace is no walk in the park—even for a helicopter—with sudden drafts from all directions and a thinner atmosphere to account for. For a drone, other challenges come into play, such as flight range and wireless communication without visual line of sight.
Fortunately, when Rakuten Drone joined the committee in 2020 it brought to the table years of experience trialing drone delivery services in challenging locations like remote islands and drone superhighways over power lines. Solving logistical issues in Japan’s many mountainous regions is one of Rakuten Drone’s stated goals, and the team is hoping that this high-altitude success will be an important milestone that others can look to when tackling their own alpine logistical challenges.
In the meantime, the Rakuten Drone team is hoping it can leverage the autonomous nature of its technology to establish long-term operations in Hakuba run by local staff. Doing so would not only contribute to the local economy, but also bring the team a step closer to widespread drone adoption in Japanese logistics.