A Chinese e-commerce giant is planning to deliver a ton of stuff—literally—by drone

Taking off, heading to homes.
Taking off, heading to homes.
Image: JD.com
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Chinese online shopping giant Jingdong, or JD.com, the biggest e-commerce company after Alibaba, is planning to massively ramp up heavy-load drone delivery across a northern Chinese province.

Through a newly formed venture called JD Logistics, the company said it is testing out the world’s largest-scale drone delivery network so far, and plans to see its drones deliver products weighing as much as a metric ton, or about 2,200 pounds, or more. The company will target deliveries to more rural areas of the country’s northern Shaanxi Province, and will have hundreds of routes and drone bases.

Already operating 40 drones in four provinces —Beijing, Jiangsu, Guizhou and Sichuan—the company wants, among other things, to deliver products to local farmers and bring produce and fruits to consumers in Shaanxi before they spoil, a situation more likely if shipped by trucks along rough country roads.

Designed by JD, and manufactured mostly by Chinese domestic firms, the drones will focus first on carrying products to sparsely populated areas that are hard to get delivery personnel out to. “It’s very expensive to have a car drive out, even if you are 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the base,” says JD spokesman Josh Gartner, “You have to drive 10 kilometers each way when you merely have a couple of orders.”

Additionally,”The routes may be very difficult to drive on, sometimes it might take a couple of hours, when drones can do it within minutes.”

Heavy drone loads come with some potential problems. They require highly stable and therefore more expensive machines, and a larger place to land. To avoid crowds, the company will fly those drones along programmed routes without direct control by a person, according to Gartner, as it already does for its lighter drones. The drones are programmed to fly over rivers or fields, he added. Also, while the lighter load drones drop off parcels in a yard for someone to pick them up and take them to homes, the heavy ones will be dispatched to warehouses.

The demand for better logistics has been rising thanks to China’s booming e-commerce, helping some people make their fortunes.

JD began using bright red flying robots in eastern Jiangsu province in late 2015. It also tested drones (Link in Chinese) carrying weights of 10 to 15 kilograms (9.3 miles) in the same province in June. Another logistics giant SF Express, one of the earliest in China to provide drone delivery service, operated 500 drone flights a day in 2015.

Drones carrying as little as 10 pounds can be considered heavy-lift drones. But JD’s plan to fly a ton or more wouldn’t be the heaviest load carried by an unmanned aerial device. The US Marines have unmanned cargo choppers that can ferry loads of as much as 6,000 pounds, up from about 3,000 pounds when it first started testing them in 2010.

The ramp up in drone delivery comes as China moves towards more regulation for private drone ownership, requiring last week that individual owners register their devices. China is home to the world’s biggest manufacturer of civilian drones, DJI. Chinese manufacturers sold some 80,000 aerial drones in the country in the first three months of last year, a 30% increase from the previous quarter, according to US-based technology market research company IDC.