Zipline drones to deliver medicine to remote Japanese islands


Zipline launches a delivery drone with its catapult.


A drone start-up 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 automaker, said the service would cut delivery times from hours to 30 minutes. Toyota Tsusho, which invested in Zipline in 2018, will lead the operation.

Test flights are already underway, the companies said.

Zip line and others drone delivery companies could dramatically speed up the shipment of lightweight, high-end products if they could fix regulatory issues and improve technology to make it cost-effective. Amazon, Google parent Alphabet and several startups have investments in drone delivery, though the industry remains small amid concerns over noise, privacy and security.

Still, drones promise to be especially useful in remote locations, like the Goto Islands, where conventional delivery by truck is not an option. A chain of dozens of islands scattered over approximately 50 sea miles west of Japan, the Goto Islands have a population of 50,000 people.

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

Many drones are quadcopters that provide a stable and maneuverable platform for video cameras, 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.

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

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