Zipline lands in Japan

San Francisco, California (US), Goto (JAPAN) — For the first ever time in their lives, the Zips are in Japan.

And that is because the flagship medical drone logistics company, Zipline, entered a partnership deal with Japanese general trading company Toyota Tsusho Corporation, which will see Zipline’s Zips delivering medical supplies across Japan’s Goto islands, off the western coast of Kyushu, in southwestern Japan.

The flights are scheduled to start today – under the aegis of Sora-iina, a subsidiary created by Toyota Tsusho just for the drone operation – with the autonomous drones delivering the supplies to pharmacies and hospitals.

Three major Japanese distributors of pharmaceuticals have also jumped on board as partners.

According to a statement from Toyota Tsusho, Sora-iina will manage its own distribution centre and flight services from Fukue Port. The Gotō distribution hub will be the first in Asia and 14th in the world to operate Zipline’s autonomous instant logistics technology, as well as the first in the world to be operated by a partner.

Most of Zipline’s distributions hubs are in Africa, and the drone company usually oversees their management and operations.

“The Toyota Group has a decades-long track record of excellence across transportation and logistics; now, they’re ready to take on the next frontier of mobility,” said Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. “Together, we’re taking an important step toward unlocking the impact of autonomous instant logistics technology in new use cases, new airspaces and entirely new geographies.

“You can totally transform the way that you react to pandemics, treat patients and do things like home health care delivery.

Although drones have been used in Japan for photography and aerial exhibitions, such as the Tokyo Olympics last year, they’re not in wide use, especially in urban areas because of regulations. It remains to be seen if Zipline’s health care service will help win over skeptics.

They will not be alone though in this quest for unmanned aerial superiority in the Japanese urban airspaces.

Another delivery drone company, Wingcopter from Germany, is actually celebrating its first year in the Asian country, having landed in April last year, via a partnership with All-Nippon Airways (ANA).

Interestingly, Zipline will be operating in the same Goto sphere of influence that Wingcopter has been working for the past year; the German start-up first held pilot flights between Fukuejima and Hisakajima in the city of Goto in March last year.

Rinaudo was optimistic that drone technology will be accepted in a nation known for its robotics prowess, has a large elderly population, but needs better health care in isolated areas.

Medical services are the focus because “there was a real moral imperative to get that right first,” he said.

“Communities will deeply understand the value of the service. And it was also easier to get regulators comfortable with what we were doing when every flight was potentially saving a human life.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made deliveries of vaccines more pressing than ever, Rinaudo added. Blood supplies, insulin and cancer treatment have also been delivered with Zipline drones.

Today’s launch is the culmination of a longstanding partnership between Toyota Tsusho and Zipline, which began with Toyota Tsusho’s investment in Zipline in June 2018. The companies have also partnered in Ghana, where Zipline delivers medical products from Gokals-Laborex Limited – Toyota Tsusho Group’s pharmaceutical distributor—to hospitals across the country.


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