U.S. drone company Zipline begins delivering drugs to Japan

TOKYO (AP) — Zipline, a U.S. company that specializes in using autonomously flying drones to deliver medical supplies, has taken off in Japan.

They are flying, starting Thursday, through the tiny Goto Islands off the west coast of Kyushu in southwestern Japan, delivering to pharmacies and hospitals.

Other parts of Japan could follow, including urban areas, although the greatest needs tend to be in isolated rural areas.

Zipline, founded six years ago, is already in operation in the United States, where it has partnered with Walmart Inc. to deliver other products to the retail chain as well as medicines. It also delivers medical products to Ghana and Rwanda.

Its takeoff in Japan is in partnership with Toyota Tsusho, a group company of Japan’s leading automaker Toyota Motor Corp.

“You can totally transform the way you respond to pandemics, treat patients, and do things like deliver home health care,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told The Associated Press.

Although drones have been used in Japan for aerial photography and exhibitions, such as the Tokyo Olympics last year, they are not widely used, especially in urban areas due to regulations. It remains to be seen if Zipline’s health service will help convince skeptics.

Rinaudo was optimistic that the technology will be accepted in a country known for its robotics prowess, which has a large elderly population but needs better healthcare in remote areas.

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

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

By delivering medications accurately, the service helps reduce inventory and, potentially, waste. Silent zero-emission flights can go up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) and are inexpensive compared to other modes of transportation, according to South San Francisco, Calif.-based Zipline.

The coronavirus pandemic has made vaccine deliveries more urgent than ever, Rinaudo said. Blood supplies, insulin and cancer treatments were also delivered with Zipline drones.

A subsidiary called Sora-iina will handle operations, running a distribution center and flight services from the port of Fukue on the Goto Islands. It is the first fulfillment center in Asia and the 14th in the world to leverage Zipline’s “autonomous instant logistics” technology. Three major Japanese pharmaceutical distributors have agreed to be partners.


Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama