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Drone tested in aging west Japan town to supply goods to mountainous areas

MISATO, Shimane -- A drone test flight was carried out in this western Japan town on Jan. 13 and 14 with a goal to transport goods to settlements dotted in mountainous areas occasionally isolated due to heavy rain.

    The test conducted by transportation company Sagawa Express Co., the town of Misato and other bodies went off without a hitch. The Misato Municipal Government will follow it up with a demonstration experiment of drones within the fiscal year, in a bid to realize their practical use in fiscal 2022.

    A town official puts goods in a box attached beneath a drone in Misato, Shimane Prefecture, on Jan. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenichi Kayahara)

    The test was conducted above the Gonokawa River and its tributary to minimalize the danger in case of a crash. If practical use of the drones is achieved, the service will likely cover almost all areas in the town, where aging and a declining population continue.

    The Jan. 14 test was favored by good weather, and the drone was flown from the town's disaster prevention park, which had some snow remaining on the ground, to the Ago community center some 6.4 kilometers away. After town officials put around 2 kilograms of goods, such as canned wild boar meat -- a specialty of the town -- thermometers and other items into a box attached beneath the drone, it soared roughly 100 to 120 meters high above the river, and arrived at the community center's ground in about 10 minutes. The route was preprogrammed by industrial drone company Eams Robotics Co., based in the city of Fukushima, and was remotely controlled by a staff member in Tokyo.

    The test was part of a project started by the town in fiscal 2018 to create flight routes, and is subsidized by the Ministry of the Environment. In Misato, where more than 45% of the population are elderly, some people have given up owning cars, and it is becoming inconvenient to go shopping or to hospitals. To maintain logistics, town officials are considering making the disaster prevention park a base for the drone flights and make seven locations, including community centers, transit points where people can receive goods.

    A drone is seen during a test flight above the disaster prevention park in Misato, Shimane Prefecture, on Jan. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenichi Kayahara)

    Sagawa Express also envisages drones as a new means of transportation amid a decreasing population and concerns of a shortage of drivers in the package delivery industry.

    "Despite radio waves being hard to reach the area because of the low temperature and the valleys, the drone flew smoothly," said an Eams Robotics staff member in charge of the test. "We would like to improve accuracy for even safer flights."

    A test conducted on another route on Jan. 13 also went well without any major problems.

    Isamu Takeda, deputy head of the Ago community center, changes the drone's battery in Misato, Shimane Prefecture, on Jan. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Isamu Kayahara)

    Deputy head of the Ago community center Isamu Takeda, 66, received goods from the drone on the facility's field, and tried changing the drone's battery. "The noise of the drone was low, and it was easy to open and close the box," said Takeda. He added, "It will be helpful for residents if legislation is introduced and we are able to receive medical supplies. It will be assuring for older people and others who no longer have cars."

    The Ago district was temporarily isolated during downpours in 2018 and 2020. Takeda added, "Drones are also effective for the town hall and others to accurately assess damage."

    "I'm relieved that the test went smoothly," said Mayor Takashi Kadoas who observed the experiment. "Protecting logistics in mountainous areas where populations are on the decline is the priority issue. To solve such problems, we hope the test can lead to future developments."

    (Japanese original by Kenichi Kayahara, Hamada Local Bureau)

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