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Japan Airlines sees future for drones

Drone delivery tests accelerated by COVID-19

Matternet M2 drone platform (Photo: Matternet)

Japan Airlines (JAL) (OTCMKTS: JAPSY) may fly some of the largest aircraft in the world, but the carrier is also taking a closer look at how small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, could one day become part of its fleet.

“Japan Airlines is eager to explore the future of its air logistics business with the implementation of drone delivery,” said Tomohiro Nishihata, the carrier’s managing executive officer of innovation, in a statement.

JAL on Wednesday announced a partnership with drone platform developer Matternet to test drone deliveries of health care goods in different environments throughout Japan.

“Due to the lack of delivery personnel and the impact of the global pandemic, the necessity to respond to changes in the logistics industry has become more urgent than ever before and the use of drones may help realize automatic, contactless delivery services on remote islands, mountainous areas and even within the city,” JAL said in a press release.

Unmanned freight delivery

Since last year, JAL has experimented with different methods to transport relief supplies throughout Japan.

In August, the airline joined a consortium of transportation and technology specialists to test drone deliveries of medicines and food in Tokyo. They include delivering medicines from a warehouse in the city to St. Luke’s International Hospital and food deliveries in proximity to East Japan Railway stations in Tokyo.

JAL will also support Switzerland-based Matternet’s drone delivery tests of health care goods in the country’s capital.

Matternet is one of the leading developers of urban drone logistics systems. The company began a partnership with Swiss Post in 2017 and sought regulatory approvals to expand into other markets, such as the U.S. 

Matternet M2 drone station (Photo: Matternet)

The company’s drones are part of UPS Flight Forward’s pharmaceutical deliveries at the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Matternet said its drone system has made more than 10,000 commercial flights in tests worldwide.

COVID accelerates drone deployment

Drone industry analyst Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at Frost & Sullivan, told American Shipper that Matternet is smart to partner with any company that will help it advance its technology, capabilities and experiences.

“A lot of what gets baked into future operations (and associated regulatory frameworks) will result from the lessons learned by operating drones to deliver a wide range of items, day or night, in different areas and in different weather conditions,” Blades said.

“Setting up these test or pilot programs to determine what can and can’t be done and what costs may be incurred to develop the ecosystem and keep it operating will inform the industry about what technologies will be required, what use cases will be profitable and a host of other analytics,” he added.

In addition to Japan, other countries such as the U.S., United Kingdom, European Union, Canada and South Korea are using drones to test the efficiency and safety of transporting critical health care goods, such as personal protective equipment, medicines and blood, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In many respects, COVID has caused the charge toward drone delivery to be moved up several years, in my opinion, with regard to regulatory waivers and rules reform, as well as an accelerated development of supporting technologies,” Blades said. “I expect we will see many similar projects in large metropolitan areas as drones become increasingly accepted by the public as tools for good.”

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Click for more FreightWaves/American Shipper articles by Chris Gillis.

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Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.