Drone delivery officially takes off in China

China’s first operating license to allow experimental drone deliveries was granted to courier SF Express on Mar. 27.

A drone of SF

The company has become the first in China to carry out commercial operation by means of drone deliveries in pilot zones.

Wang Wei, president of SF Express came up with the idea of delivering parcels via drone back in 2012, hoping to establish a nationwide logistics network that will make possible completion of deliveries anywhere in China within 36 hours.

Different from most logistics companies who rely on drones for “last mile” needs , SF aims more at long-range transportation.

The company has a relatively larger and more complex drone system, and its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can cover ranges from tens of kilometers to more than a hundred kilometers, carrying cargos weighing several kilograms to tens of kilograms.

For instance, a UAV exclusively developed for SF Express by a Chinese drone maker has a wingspan of 13 meters and length of 12 meters. It is able to cover 2,000 kilometers and carry 1.5 tons of cargos at a speed of 260 kilometers per hour.

A fixed-wing drone of SF

In the short term, SF Express is not likely to conduct drone-to-users operations, and the UAVs will be mainly used to delivery between different logistics centers.

In the pilot zones, the major task of the drones is to enhance delivery services in those remote areas with complex topography while at the same time improving the company’s logistics efficiency.

E-commerce giant JD.com is expected to be the next enterprise to get operation licenses after SF Express.

In 2016, JD.com established a special department to develop its drone delivery business, with a plan to build a drone logistics network covering both trunk and regional lines, as well as the “last mile” distribution.

In addition, the company has partnered with technology firm Nvidia to deploy one million logistics drones in China over the next five years.

Chairman of JD.com Richard Liu said that the company will build over 10,000 drone ports across China, enabling customers to receive their orders within 24 hours.

The drone trend within China’s logistics companies stems from the bottleneck pressures mounting due to shortcomings in the traditional logistics industry. With the saturation of road traffic, traditional transportation is facing more and more restrictions. As a result logistics enterprises are seeing urgent demands to forge a more effective and faster system.

However, drone delivery is still facing several challenges, including safety and stability. Both risk probability control and assurance of safe operation during severe weather remain an issue yet to be resolved. Moreover, China is still exploring suitable policies to regulate this emerging industry.