Zipline Drones to Deliver Medicine to Remote Japanese Islands

A startup drone company will begin delivering prescription drugs and other medical supplies in May to hospitals in Japan’s hard-to-reach Goto Islands. 

Zipline, a drone maker based in South San Francisco, and Toyota Tsusho Corp, a logistics subsidiary of the car manufacturer, said the service will cut delivery times to 30 minutes from several hours. Toyota Tsusho, which invested in Zipline in 2018, will run the operation.

Test flights are already underway, the companies said. 

Zipline and other drone delivery companies could dramatically speed up shipping for lightweight, premium products if they can clear regulatory concerns and improve the technology to make it economical. Amazon, Google parent Alphabet and several startups have drone delivery investments, though the industry remains small amid concerns about noise, privacy and safety.

Still, drones promise to be especially useful in remote locations, like the Goto Islands, where conventional delivery by truck isn’t an option. A chain of dozens of islands dotted across about 50 miles of sea west of Japan, the Goto Islands have a population of 50,000 people.

The service will start small but eventually will expand to several islands and be able to handle 250 deliveries a day “to thousands of facilities and homes within the service area,” Zipline said in a statement.

Many drones are quadcopters that provide a stable, maneuverable platform for videocameras, but Zipline uses fixed-wing aircraft launched from a catapult and retrieved from the air with a cable-and-hook system. Fixed-wing aircraft can fly farther or carry heavier payloads.

Zipline so far has made 280,000 commercial deliveries using aircraft that have flown autonomously for a total of more than 20 million miles thus far. It got its start in 2016 with deliveries in Rwanda and Ghana. In 2021, it expanded to ship products for Walmart in northwest Arkansas, and it has agreements to begin operations in Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and North Carolina.

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