Zipline-TTC starts new chapter in medical drone deliveries in Japan
Marking the first routine, commercial, long-range drone deliveries in Japan, US drone company Zipline and logistics company Toyota Tsusho have flagged off medical deliveries in May to the remote Gotō Islands, a chain of dozens of tiny islands off the western coast of Kyushu in southwestern Japan. The first test delivery with a Zipline drone was successfully conducted on April 28 for a medical institution on Naru-Island, Goto City, Nagasaki Prefecture. The service is expected to cut delivery times to 15-30 minutes from several hours. With commercial flights set to begin soon, this also marks Zipline's first strategic operational partnership, offering a new model for scaling our instant logistics system across the globe. Zipline has a significant presence in Africa and operates distribution centers in Rwanda and Ghana. It has signed agreements to begin services in Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire, and Kenya and has been active in delivering pharma, samples, medical supplies, and vaccines in Africa since 2016. Okeoma Moronu, Zipline's Head of Aviation Regulatory and Legal Affairs talks about the span and scope of the project in Japan.
When did this tie-up happen between Toyota Tsusho and Zipline? What can you tell us more about this strategic partnership between Zipline and Toyota Tsusho?
Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC) and Zipline have been partners since 2018 when TTC invested in Zipline. Since then, we've discussed many opportunities to expand our partnership, and we're excited to enter this new chapter together. This is Zipline's first strategic operational partnership, offering a new model for scaling our instant logistics system across the globe.
Under the partnership, Zipline will provide our autonomous aircraft, logistics technology, and operational expertise to a TTC subsidiary, Sora-iina, which will manage and distribute medical supplies to pharmacies and hospitals across the Gotō Islands, including to remote and isolated areas. This marks the first routine, commercial, long-range drone deliveries in Japan. Our partnership will initially focus on the delivery of medical supplies to the Gotō Islands, with the possibility to expand to more locations and uses in the future.
Where will these medical deliveries be made in Japan and what can you tell us about the community that will be benefited from this delivery?
Sora-iina will operate a distribution center in Fukue Port, providing on-demand access to important medical supplies, such as patient prescriptions, to health facilities and pharmacies across the Gotō Islands. The delivery area will begin with regular flights to Naru Island, with plans to increase it to western Fukue Island, Shinkamigoto, and other areas.
What are the drones that will be used in this operation, do give specific details regarding the same?
Our aircraft are fixed-wing autonomous drones with a wingspan of 3.3m, a roundtrip range of 160km, and a cruising speed of 100kph, and they can carry packages weighing up to 1.8kgs. All aircraft are launched from a distribution center that can serve an area of more than 20,000 square kilometers.
They fly completely autonomously, and when the aircraft reaches its intended destination, they drop the package using a simple paper parachute. The package will land within an area on the ground the size of a couple of parking spaces. The entire process can take as little as 15 minutes, depending on the distance—providing a faster, safer, and more sustainable model for delivery.
Is it true that the initial deliveries will feature beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations that span up to 40 kilometers per round trip, and allow for on-demand access to hundreds of medical products? Do give more details on this?
Correct—initial routes from the Fukue port distribution center will be up to 20km (40km round trip). They will be conducted beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) with no visual observers, providing rapid, on-demand access to medical supplies, such as patient prescriptions, to health facilities and pharmacies across the Gotō Islands.
Notably, this is the first time the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau has approved beyond visual line of sight for drones without onboard cameras, which speaks to the sophistication of Zipline's technology for flight path planning and tracking, operational safety, and autonomous design.
What is the size of the operations for this particular use case, what are the distribution centers, and where will medical deliveries be made? Are they any temperature-sensitive features that will be used in this operation, if so do give details on the same?
The Fukue Port distribution center will cover a service area of more than 20,000 square kilometers. It will be capable of serving the health facilities that care for the roughly 50,000 residents across the Gotō Islands and those beyond, who live within the service area. The delivery area will begin with regular flights to Naru Island, with plans to increase it to western Fukue Island, Shinkamigoto, and other areas.
Why was Japan and in particular, Toyota Tsusho chosen as a partner for this project? Is sustainability a big aspect of this decision-making- do explain? Has Zipline has partnered with any other companies in Japan for similar or other use-cases?
This launch is the culmination of a years-long partnership between Zipline and Toyota Tsusho, which began in 2018 when TTC invested in Zipline. Japan has a proven history of innovation and leadership when it comes to transportation, robotics, and sustainability. And TTC in particular is a world leader in operational excellence and expertise in the mobility industry. This is an ideal partnership to pilot a new operational model for Zipline, as well as bring automated, on-demand delivery to Japan for the first time.
The partnership also builds upon existing sustainability practices in the Gotō Islands and across Japan. When compared to conventional deliveries via car or van, Zipline's autonomous aircraft have been shown to produce 98% fewer carbon emissions, creating a safer, more sustainable on-demand delivery system for the planet.