Rakuten trials autonomous drone delivery to remote island residents
Since making its first pioneering delivery on a golf course outside of Tokyo in April 2016, Rakuten has been at the forefront of drone delivery innovation. The Rakuten Drone UGV team continues to break new ground — both on land and in the air — with tests and trial services across Japan.
The technological advances achieved in this field also have the potential to address a broad range of social needs. One of the Rakuten Drone UGV team’s stated goals is to support logistically isolated people — customers living in places so inaccessible that Japan’s delivery network cannot reliably service them. Now the drone innovators are applying their expertise to tackle some of Japan’s biggest demographic challenges: an aging population and the rise of shrinking, isolated communities.
With a decreasing population of residents, the largely inaccessible Masaki Island is exactly the kind of community that can benefit from drone delivery technology. In January, the Rakuten Drone UGV team trialed a new service delivering groceries directly from a mainland supermarket to this remote island located off the coast of Japan.
Sustainable living on a remote island
Masaki Island sits off the coast of Mie Prefecture in central Japan, only accessible by boat. This 0.36 square kilometers of land was once home to nearly 700 people but now hosts a population of around just 70 — the majority over the age of 65.
The island has no hotels, no schools, a single vending machine and just one grocery store open three mornings a week. Outside of store operating hours, islanders must catch a ferry or sail themselves to the mainland to buy food.
All parties on board
During a press event demonstrating the new trial, the mayor of Shima — the city to which the island belongs — used the opportunity to voice his desire to have a regular drone delivery service running by 2023.
The demonstration saw one elderly resident become the island’s first recipient of a drone delivery, with a lunch bento order.
”We have a supermarket here open three mornings a week, but we’re not young anymore, so it would be great to have something like this available. It’s like a dream.” he remarked. “We try to grow our own vegetables too, but often the wild boars get them before we can!”
Demonstrating the viability of drone delivery
The trial — which ran over several days in January — allowed residents to order groceries from a supermarket on the mainland and have them delivered directly to the island via Rakuten’s signature drone.
The journey takes around 15 minutes each way, navigating an intricate 5.5km path above a winding bay that stretches inland from the Pacific Ocean. Upon reaching the island, the drone lands, releases its package and returns to its point of origin.
Measuring 160cm across and 60cm tall with a maximum load of 5kg, one of the hallmarks of Rakuten’s drone is its 100% autonomous operation. Launch, flight, landing, package release and return can be performed with the press of a single button, enabling a higher level of reliability than human-piloted flights.
On the customer side, the Rakuten Drone service places considerable focus on usability, with customers able to choose from a selection of around 200 supermarket products through a handy app. Taking into account the age and technical experience of Masaki Island’s residents, the trial also took orders via catalog and over the phone, and allowed residents to pay for their groceries in cash.
Since launching in 2016, the Rakuten Drone UGV team has conducted tests and trial services around Japan, including deliveries to a remote island in Ehime, a local backyard in Shizuoka, over an LTE connection in Chiba, to a remote island in Tokyo Bay, to a disaster-struck area in Fukushima and over power lines on a kind of “drone highway.”