Drones easing shopping-woes in rural parts of Japan

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
A drone flies over a forested area in Kosuge, Yamanashi Prefecture, on April 19.

Drones are increasingly winging their way to rural households to deliver groceries and medication to elderly people.

In May, five municipalities in four prefectures, including Yamanashi Prefecture and Hokkaido, established a special council to promote such services.

Council members believe there is a high demand for drone-delivered goods in areas where many people find it difficult to shop. The council is keen to amass and share up-to-date knowledge on drone technology as it looks to expand its fledgling scheme.

The participating municipalities are calling on other local authorities to join the venture, which aims to utilize drones for such purposes as disaster-response support and assisting people who have limited access to healthcare.

In April, a white drone flew slowly over a forested area in Kosuge, Yamanashi Prefecture. The drone landed in open space, dropped off a box, then flew back to its base, about three kilometers away.

“I’ve gotten used to seeing drones flying overhead,” said an 82-year-old local resident. “It’s convenient, because they fly goods right to the front of my house.” The woman has already used the service to order gyudon beef-on-rice bowls, ice cream and other products.

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
A resident receives drone-delivered frozen udon noodles and other products in Kosuge, Yamanashi Prefecture, on April 19.

About half of the village’s 700 residents are elderly, and there are only two stores. The Kosuge municipal government started drone-delivery tests in April last year with support from Aeronext — a Tokyo-based drone research and development company — with the aim of making it easier for residents to buy and receive goods.

The company uses a vacant store in the center of the village as a temporary storage depot for bread, adult diapers and other goods. The firm has also built five landing points in the village; each point is between two to seven minutes from the storage depot. Using autopilot technology, the drones make round trips between the depot and the landing points.

When a user places an order via telephone or smartphone app, a staffer loads the ordered products onto a drone at the depot. Users are notified of the estimated time of arrival and receive their products at the landing point nearest to their respective homes. Remotely based employees continually monitor camera footage from the drones to prevent accidents.

In November, the company started charging users ¥300 per delivery. As of the end of May, about 250 drone deliveries had been successfully completed, including those made when the service was free.

Drone-delivery experiments also have been conducted in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, and Kamishihoro and Higashikawa, both in Hokkaido.

In April last year, the Kamishihoro municipal government launched a drone-based project to help support rescue operations for alpine accidents. Last winter, the town held a nighttime event that involved 300 drones.

These four municipalities — and Sakai, Ibaraki Prefecture, which is also considering introducing a drone-related service — took the initiative to establish a national council on promoting new smart delivery in mid-May.

Meanwhile, Aga in Niigata Prefecture has been independently testing a service that combines drone-delivered medicines with online medication instructions.

“Drones hold the key to revitalizing regional communities,” said a senior official of the Kamishihoro municipal government’s digital promotion department.