Picture: ACSL President Kenzo Nonami (left) and others pose with the drone after it completed its delivery to a beach in Haramachi Ward, Fukushima Prefecture.

On January 12, 2017, Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd. (ACSL) raised the bar in the drone delivery industry by completing a 12km flight and delivery, the world’s first autonomous flight and delivery by a rotary-wing drone over 10km, according to the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

The delivery was made to surfers on a beach in Minamisoma City in Fukushima Prefecture. The Chiba-based drone research and development company, which Rakuten invested in and has been collaborating with on its own drone delivery service “Sora Raku,” launched the drone manually from Murakami in Odaka Ward, Fukushima Prefecture. After it was switched to autonomous control mode, the drone flew along a pre-programmed route over the sea, delivering hot soup to waiting surfers at a beach in Haramachi Ward.

ACSL’s PF1 airframe, which made the test flight.

ACSL’s PF1 airframe, which made the test flight.

The flight was made by ACSL’s PF1 airframe, which is the base for the “Tenku” drone used in Rakuten’s Sora Raku service. The delivery took approximately 15 minutes, with the drone flying at speeds of around 40km/h.

The test flight and delivery was carried out in the Fukushima Hama-Dori Robot Testing Zone, an area specially designated by the Japanese government for field-testing robots.

Speaking to the Nikkei Shimbun, Kenzo Nonami, President of ACSL, commented, “This test flight has proved that safe and accurate drone flight is possible even over long distances.” Nonami also outlined plans for further field tests to be held in summer, in which flight distances will be extended to over 20km and multiple drones will be deployed simultaneously.

The success of the flight test highlights the potential of drones to revolutionize delivery, and how delivery by drones may not be as far away as we think. Hideaki Mukai, head of Rakuten’s Sora Raku project, has recently spoken about how one of the goals of the service is to deliver goods from the Rakuten Fulfillment Center, Rakuten’s logistics hub in Ichikawa, Chiba, to Makuhari New City in Chiba, a distance of 10km, by 2020.

But Nonami also sees applications for drones in humanitarian support. “In the future, we are hoping to realize the utilization of drones in delivery to isolated areas, as well as to deliver supplies in times of emergency,” Nonami told the Nikkei.