"The era of the drone is here," professor Kenzo Nonami of Chiba University told an audience last April at the New Economy Summit (NEXT 2016) in Japan. The vision he laid out at that meeting for a "Drone City" is well on its way to becoming reality.
By 2019, a year before the Olympic Games come to Tokyo, 200 drones should be zipping through the skies, delivering goods to residents of Chiba City, about an hour southeast of Tokyo by train. There, new construction is underway to accommodate 10,000 new residents with condominium towers that are being designed with drones in mine. Think: landing ports as well as technology and staff to monitor the air traffic.
"It will be like a conveyor belt of drones in the sky," Nonami told the Statesman.
The new residential area will support a network of unmanned aerial vehicles moving between warehouses and residents, reducing the number of delivery trucks on the highway by 30 to 40 percent.
"We want to revolutionize the air and we want to revolutionize logistics," Nonami told the NEXT 2016 audience.
For Nonami, logistics means dealing with the last mile. He envisions a network where large drones pick up packages from a warehouse in Tokyo Bay and then drop them about 6 miles away in Mihama Ward, where smaller drones fan out to make individual deliveries.
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Although Japan bans drone flights in urban areas, the government has created a special deregulation zone in Chiba City, reports the Japan Times, to accommodate the drones.
And because of the country's growing population of elderly folks, many of those who will live in the new buildings will be senior citizens. The mayor of Chiba City, Toshihito Kumagai, told the audience at NEXT 2016 that deliveries could be geared toward their needs.
"We're thinking about transportation of pharmaceuticals," he said. "We want to have buy in from the elderly as well through these kinds of services."
Shortly after the meeting, they ran a test, delivering a bottle of wine from a supermarket to a nearby apartment.
In order to meet the expected demand for professional drone drivers, a new curriculum has been developed that will begin next year at a high school in Tokyo. Students who enroll in the three-year program could qualify to work at "Drone City."
Chiba City is no stranger to drones. This past October, the city's fire department became one of the first in the country to use unmanned aerial vehicle technology to support its emergency workers. The drone, which can fly for 20 minutes at a time, can be fitted with a camera or a gas sensor to take real-time live video or test the air for poisonous gases without endangering firefighters.
Although the Chiba City drones won't be servicing the Olympic Games taking place in Tokyo, professor Nonami hopes they become a tourist attraction in their own right.
"We hope people will come to see the Olympics and the Drone City," he told the Statesman.
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