CHIBA – A city near Tokyo has joined hands with the central government and other partners to commercialize a drone-based delivery service it calls “the first step of an industrial revolution in the air.”
“We want to get a head start in the building of a future-oriented community and disseminate the idea to the rest of the world,” Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai said.
The service, also involving private companies and research institutions, is expected to be launched by 2019.
The service envisages large drones picking up packages from a warehouse beside Tokyo Bay and dropping them off at a landing point in Mihama Ward about 10 km away. There, smaller drones will be loaded with individual packages for delivery to the balconies of high-rise condominiums in the same ward. The drones will all be programmed to fly autonomously using the GPS system.
Japan bans drone flights in densely packed urban areas, but the government opened the skies in the coastal city 40 km east of Tokyo by designating it as a special deregulation zone to help raise the international competitiveness of local industry.
In a test flight in April, the first of its kind in an urban area, a drone carrying a bottle of wine made a round-trip flight between a shopping mall rooftop and a nearby park in Mihama Ward.
Chiba aims to start the delivery service before 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic Games, and plans to ask real estate developers to set up landing areas on the balconies of new condominium unit.
In June, project participants started meeting once a month. They are working on developing technology to ensure flight stability in adverse weather and setting up a traffic control system for the drones.
“We expect the arrival of an era in which thousands of drones will be flying above us,” said Chiba University engineering professor Kenzo Nonami, who heads the team.
About 15 private companies have defined their respective roles in the project.
Weathernews Inc. is responsible for forecasts in ultralow-altitude areas where the drones are to fly, while NEC Corp. and NTT Docomo Inc. are taking charge of flight control.
Safety is to be addressed in another test flight later this year. While similar trials have been conducted in mostly mountainous parts of Japan, there are still strong safety concerns in densely populated areas, especially near kindergartens and schools.
“Safety is the highest priority,” Kumagai said. “We will move forward the project step by step, while inviting residents to view flight tests.”
Cost and technological problems also need to be addressed. At a project team meeting, retail giant Aeon Co. proposed examining feasibility from the viewpoints of transportation and insurance costs.
Technological hurdles must also be cleared, including whether a mobile phone network can be used to control the drones. Home delivery will be the first step toward drones’ potential wider use in the skies, Nonami said, noting that developing a “flying robot,” which is capable of automatically executing complicated tasks with manipulators, is the ultimate goal of his project. Nonami heads Autonomous Control Systems Laboratory Ltd., a venture business created in Chiba University jointly with some 220 companies and research labs to develop drone-based technologies.