Commercial, Unmanned

Japan Airlines Continues Effort to Enable Future Drone Delivery Operations

A woman walks to a ground station to retrieve a package delivered via drone, showing a future concept of operations envisioned by Japan Air Lines (JAL) in Tokyo. (JAL)

Japan Airlines (JAL) has established a new agreement with Matternet to evaluate future opportunities for the use of drones to provide healthcare deliveries, the latest in the carrier’s efforts to use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for a new style of flight operations.

Matternet, a U.S.-based end-to-end UAS logistics company launched in 2017, has enabled more than 10,000 commercial revenue drone flights and has separate regulatory approvals to conduct beyond visual line of sight operations (BLVOS) in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) airspace. Under a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed with JAL, Matternet will conduct a joint research project aimed at eventually deploying a full-scale drone delivery service, according to a Sept. 23 press release.

“Japan Airlines is eager to explore the future of its air logistics business with the implementation of drone delivery,” JAL Tomohiro Nishihata Managing Executive Officer of Innovation said in a statement. “We aim to contribute to improving healthcare and solving logistics issues through our partnership with Matternet.”

An example of the type of medical package delivery JAL envisions using Matternet's drones for. (JAL)

The end-to-end drone logistics system provided by Matternet includes its M2 Drone, ground control station and cloud-based data management platform. Their software is capable of receiving customer requests and generating routes for new drone flights while monitoring and controlling other assets.

Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet said their partnership will begin with demonstrations of drone deliveries in Tokyo. JAL’s partnership with Matternet follows a number of other initiatives the airline has taken toward advancing the use of drones for commercial delivery operations throughout Japan.

A joint announcement published by JAL, KDDI Corp., East Japan Railway, Weathernews Inc., and Terra Drone Corp. describes their plan to demonstrate drone delivery services for Tokyo Metropolitan Government agencies. Those companies have formed a consortium tasked with studying the feasibility drones delivering pharmaceuticals and other medical supplies using fixed-wing unmanned aircraft supplied by Terra Drone. Additionally, Terra Drone will supply its Terra UTM platform to enable drone traffic management including flight plan generation and communications to operators.

JAL showed food and medical supply deliveries concept of operations in an Aug. 31 press release. (JAL)

“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 real and the use of drones may help realize automatic, contactless delivery services,” JAL said in an Aug. 31 press release. The consortium will also integrate smartphone applications and ground base stations into the entire concept of operations, while also evaluating the use of drones for food deliveries to offices and apartment buildings as well.

Prior to the August announcement, JAL embarked on another drone delivery testing initiative with Terra Drone to do full-scale flight demonstrations in the city of Yabu, Japan. JAL has also expressed interest in the future use of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft as well, after signing an agreement with Bell and Sumitomo Corp. to create an on-demand air mobility network, as well as work to build the infrastructure and foster the regulatory environment required for the service to take hold.

Showing how serious it is about future drone delivery ambitions, JAL has also launched its new Air Mobility Operation Academy (JAMOA). The program will provide education and training for future UAV pilots, with JAL describing it as the first “known program in Japan to offer the same flight knowledge taught to actual pilots of a commercial airline.”

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