Building a Drone Highway in Japan

Originally published on 7/30/2018

A Utilities Giant and Drone Technology

We at Innovators in Japan have highlighted a few drone companies in our weekly digest. But in all the drone companies in existence, there’s one organization that’s working on an interesting drone POC that’s not even technically a drone company. This week, we will be diving into Tokyo Electric Power Company, a Japanese energy and utilities company, and their innovative Drone Highway POC.

About TEPCO

Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO for short, is a Japanese utilities company founded in 1951 managing electricity production and distribution in the Kanto region. In more recent news, you might have heard of TEPCO as the operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that suffered major damages during the Tohoku earthquakes and tsunami in 2011. In any case, TEPCO from the outside is just one giant electricity provider, helping municipalities and households keep their lights on.

Utilities and Drone Flight

TEPCO Ventures, a subsidiary of TEPCO, has positioned itself as an innovator in the utilities space, with projects involving electric vehicles, IoT, and digital marketing-forward retail electricity sales in their solutions portfolio. In this mix is the drone highway initiative, a project to test and outline best practices for drone-based deliveries leveraging utility poles as navigation / homing support devices. Along with Zenrin, a Japanese web map producer, and Rakuten, an eCommerce site, TEPCO announced its first major milestone on July 13th, a successful demonstration of drone flight using power lines and utility poles.

The Drone Highway

The Drone Highway (video in link), an initiative launched by TEPCO, Zenrin, and Rakuten, aims to set up appropriate infrastructure in order to safely and reliably use drones for various tasks from package delivery to aerial application of pesticides, and security monitoring. While you can flying drones within the field of your view and some more, autonomous flight across long distances, carrying potentially industrial goods is still full of roadblocks.

The Drone Highway aims to solve this issue through the following four key stages:

  1. Implementing a 3D database with information on infrastructure and obstacles
  2. Developing technology to autonomously navigate drones to a maintenance station, based on the aforementioned database
  3. Designating airspace for mid-range autonomous flight supported by electricity networks (electricity poles and other utility markers)
  4. Setting up drone ports as drone recharge, maintenance, and repairs stations along the drone highway

A Successful First Step

On June 27th, the three companies conducted a successful autonomous delivery based on test power line navigation course. The flight objective was to deliver a bento box to a country-side house 3 kilometers away (video in link). The scenario, a bento maker sending lunch to their customer in a remote area, is apt for a nation with decreasing population and accelerated aging. And while there are numerous other tests needed to fully vet this idea, it seems TEPCO and team have made one leap into a world where drones are an inseparable piece of society.