When you think of the Toyota Tsusho Corporation, the first thought that comes to mind is likely is cars. But for future generations, the first thought that goes with Toyota could be drone delivery.
That thought is becoming increasingly realistic given news this week that Toyota Tsusho Corporation and drone delivery giant Zipline have teamed up to launch automated, on-demand deliveries of medical supplies across Japan’s Gotō Islands. As part of the deal, Toyota Tsusho is using Zipline’s instant logistics system to make routine, commercial long-distance drone deliveries in Japan.
What is Toyota Tsusho, and how is it using drones in Japan?
Toyota Tsusho is a bit of a complicated company, and it is closely affiliated with the maker of cars you know like the Corolla. Toyoya Tsusho is a Japanese general trading company operating under the umbrella of the Toyota Group. Its main business is certainly supporting Toyota Motor’s automobile (Toyota Motor Corporation is its own company under Toyota Group), but Toyota Tsusho’s business is also pretty diverse, spanning industrial, commercial, and consumer sectors in business areas including industrial raw materials, agricultural products, and high technology. Now, you can add drones to that list.
With this week’s news, we see Zipline’s first delivery operations in Japan. The news also marks a slightly different operating model than what Zipline does through its other operation, which are primarily in developing countries including Ghana and Rwanada.
With this set of drone deliveries, Toyota Tsusho will actually conduct the operations itself, managing its own distribution center and flight services from Fukue Port. That makes the new Sora-iina’s Gotō distribution center the first Zipline outpost in the world to be operated by a partner.
The center will use Zipline drones to distribute medical supplies to pharmacies and hospitals across the Gotō Islands, including to remote and isolated areas. Like most Zipline deliveries, these will be relatively long-distance flights, entailing beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) operations up to 40 kilometers roundtrip.
This is not Zipline’s first time working with Toyota Tsusho. In fact, Toyota Tsusho invested in Zipline all the way back in June 2018. Previously, the companies ran a partnership in Ghana, where Zipline delivered medical products from Gokals-Laborex Limited (which is Toyota Tsusho Group’s pharmaceutical distributor) to hospitals across the country. The two companies entered a strategic operational partnership to bring drone delivery to Japan in March 2021.
Zipline’s expansion tear
The new move is just another signal that Zipline has been on a tear in terms of international expansion. The new distribution center will be the first in Asia, yet the 14th in the world, to operate Zipline’s drone technology.
Recent Zipline expansions elsewhere in the world include new agreements with Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, three states in Nigeria and several U.S. companies. Zipline in early 2022 announced a deal with Magellan Rx Management to bring medical deliveries to North Carolina. It also conducts deliveries with Intermountain Healthcare, which is a Utah-based, not-for-profit system of 24 hospitals, operating in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. And in late 2021, Zipline announced a partnership with Walmart to make deliveries happen just down the road from Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Zipline said it intends for its partnership with Toyota Tsusho Corporation to new communities and use cases in the future.
How is the Japanese government handling drone delivery?
Japan has long been receptive to drones, and companies have been using drones for use cases including recording, pesticide spraying, and infrastructure inspection for years.
“The country is very progressive with respect to the integration of drones into everyday life,” according to an earlier statement provided by another drone delivery company, Wingcopter, to Drone Girl in late 2021. “Already in 2017, the Japanese government recognized the extraordinary potential drones have to offer in many different sectors of life and business and created a first national commercial drone roadmap, the so-called Roadmap for the Application and Technology Development of UAVs in Japan, and has continuously adapted it ever since.”
Japan has also supported a project led by Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization to develop a drone traffic management system for multiple drone operators to fly in the same airspace safely.
But like most countries, making it feasible to conduct BVLOS flights has been a challenge. That’s changing this year, as many countries implement new rules that could make BVLOS flights more widespread. Currently most BVLOS flights are conducted via separate, individual approvals, as is the case with Zipline’s operations in Japan.
In Japan, things are expected to change in December of 2022. Experts are counting on a Japanese law reform that would allow for “unassisted non-visual flight over manned areas” under level 4 flight rules (current Zipline operations are level 3).
And on a local level, Japanese cities seem eager to get involved. With the Zipline project in particular, the city of Goto sees drone deliveries as part of its “Smart Island” initiative, citing potential environmental benefits of drone delivery vs. standard truck deliveries. In fact, the business was selected by the Organization for the Promotion of Low Emission Vehicles (LEVO) as a “FY2020 CO2 Emission Reduction Measures Business.” Zipline claims its operations reduce delivery emissions by up to 98% compared to traditional methods.