JAPAN – Zipline, an American company that specializes in delivering medical supplies using self-flying drones, has launched in Japan.

They have started flying across the tiny Goto Islands, off the western coast of Kyushu in southwestern Japan, beginning April 21, delivering to pharmacies and hospitals.

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

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

It will launch in Japan in collaboration with Toyota Tsusho, a subsidiary of Japan’s largest automaker, Toyota Motor Corp.

You can totally transform the way that you react to pandemics, treat patients and do things like home health care delivery,” Zipline Chief Executive Keller Rinaudo said.

Although drones have been used for photography and aerial exhibitions in Japan, such as the Tokyo Olympics last year, they are not widely used, particularly in urban areas, due to regulations.

It remains to be seen whether Zipline’s health-care service can persuade skeptics.

Rinaudo is optimistic that the technology will be accepted in a country known for its robotics prowess, which has a large elderly population but requires better health care in remote areas.

The focus is on medical services because “there was a real moral imperative to get that right first,” he says.

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

By precisely delivering medicine, the service helps to reduce stockpiles and, potentially, waste.

According to Zipline, the zero-emission quiet flights can travel up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) and are less expensive than other modes of transportation.

The coronavirus pandemic has made vaccine deliveries more urgent than ever, according to Rinaudo. Zipline drones have also delivered blood supplies, insulin, and cancer treatment.

The operations will be carried out by a subsidiary called Sora-iina, which will manage a distribution center and flight services from Fukue Port on the Goto Islands.

It is the first in Asia and the 14th in the world to use Zipline’s “autonomous instant logistics” technology. Three major Japanese pharmaceutical distributors have agreed to collaborate.

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