To help rural communities access basic commodities, ANA is operating a drone delivery service to provide vital infrastructure
Connecting people is ANA Group’s mission, no matter what form it takes.
In 2016, ANA Group launched an internal project team to explore new business opportunities using drones. Initially, the Group utilized the drones to inspect aircraft and conduct bird’s-eye view filming. Drone usage has evolved to include conducting feasibility tests that deliver basic commodities to those who live on remote islands or in mountainous areas of Japan.
Since 2018, delivery services utilizing drones have become a pillar of this new venture. The Group has operated 15 test flights to transport medicines to remote islands and daily supplies to areas struck by disaster.
Currently, drone delivery services are too costly for day-to-day use. In addition, aviation related regulations and restrictions are a hurdle for the business to be accessible to the general population. Fortunately, automating the service operation is expected to lower the cost significantly and licensing drone operators will ease regulations. ANA Group will continue to operate the drone delivery service on a trial basis while prioritizing emergency usage and preparing for the day when the service becomes available for a wider market.
As Drone Project Director, Mitsutoshi Nobuta leads a team of 15 at ANA HOLDINGS Digital Design Lab, and points to one project in particular that stands out for having the most potential to contribute to society. Partnered with Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Nagasaki University and City of Goto in Nagasaki Prefecture, Digital Design Lab conducted a trial to deliver necessary pharmaceuticals between Nagasaki’s remote islands (approximately 10 miles apart) in 2021, using an electrical fixed-wing VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft developed by Wingcopter, a German drone manufacturer.
ANA led the trial by operating the drone remotely and managing the delivery tracking system. Currently, it takes about 45 minutes to make such deliveries with a regularly operated ferry and ground transportation. Drones would be able to cut the delivery time down to 10 minutes.
The trial required three people to operate the drone, four to monitor the flight and two for administration and coordination. Once the regulations are revised, the project would no longer need such a large team to monitor the drones and take only one person to operate.
“We started the drone business with the intention of leveraging ANA Group’s strength and skillset as an airline,” said Nobuta. “It is not an easy task for those who live on remote islands to get the medicines they need. It is our mission to put the service into practical use for all so that we can provide a solution for this social issue in Japan.”
Recently, the Group has reached an agreement with 7-Eleven Japan to consider starting drone delivery services in 2025.
Nobuta wishes to expand ANA Group’s drone business outside Japan in the near future. He visited Zambia when ANA Group was selected to work with Aerosense Inc., a Japanese drone manufacturer, and Japan’s National Center for Global Health and Medicine in 2019, to offer ANA’s aviation expertise and technology to partners in Zambia. This was part of a comprehensive effort to build a sustainable drone transportation network for blood samples. Rapid blood testing in rural areas is viewed as a key component to fighting against the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other devastating diseases in the African region. In an agreement with the Zambian government, the Group committed to using its drones in the country starting January 2020, but the project was canceled due to the pandemic.
Nobuta believes such projects in developing nations would help create not only a vital medical infrastructure, but also be an inspiration for children.
“Seeing drones in action is a cool experience,” he said. “I wish that would motivate them to work with drones one day as adults.”