Slow But Steady – The Diplomat

Much has been written abroad about China’s sales of armed drones, but in the past year we have heard little about progress in drone deliveries. Delivery drones are helping express delivery companies address declining profits, particularly profitability issues associated with last-mile shipments. China has increased the use of delivery drones to solve the delivery problem in remote rural areas as well as high demand pressures in urban areas. Companies like Meituan and JD.com are delivering drones to customers in order to meet demand.

Drones can help solve major supply chain issues, particularly last-mile delivery challenges and shipping bottlenecks. Last mile delivery, the logistics involved in getting products to a customer’s door, is the most expensive aspect of delivery and may account for more than half of transportation costs. This is because this last part of the charging process usually involves multiple stops.

Last-mile delivery is especially expensive in rural China, where delivery destinations are far apart and terrain can be difficult to traverse, with mountains and other terrain acting as barriers to fulfilling orders. With the growth of the e-commerce market in rural areas, drones are able to navigate in remote areas. Delivery drones are flying to rural areas to overcome the lack of logistics transportation.

In urban areas, the use of drones requires special permission since they are located at low altitudes. Even then, excessive traffic at some locations made drone deliveries more convenient than human delivery.

JD and Meituan have developed drone delivery technologies and processes. JD started UAV delivery in 2015, and since then has established a three-tier UAV logistics distribution and navigable logistics system for main lines, branch lines and stations. Trunk Line drones can cover an area of ​​300 km to transport products from warehouse to warehouse via a large ton-class drone. Branch line drones can quickly move smaller batches between logistics branch hubs, and drones travel to remote areas to solve last mile delivery.

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Meituan placed its first delivery order in January 2021, reaching 8,000 customers in Shenzhen, a city where the streets are crowded with cars, under a pilot programme. The program includes 10 neighborhoods and four commercial areas, where meals are delivered to kiosks that are easily accessible to customers. Meituan has also announced plans to build a pilot center in Shanghai for its drone logistics network.

Meituan had to overcome technical issues, such as programming the drones to be completely autonomous instead of remote controls and carrying packages of different weights. These issues were addressed through the use of robust navigation systems and the provision of a spare production capacity for the drones.

Package weight has become less than a limiting factor. To increase the weight of goods that can be transported, Chinese companies are expanding the use of cargo drones. China’s first unmanned cargo flight took place last month in Jingmen City, Hubei. The cargo drone can fly with a payload of 500 kg up to 500 km. These cargo drones will exit the testing phase and become operational in the next decade.

Notably, Chinese regulations are operable with drones. The first national standard for express delivery service by drones took effect in January 2021. This rule sets out requirements for conditions, procedures and safety issues for express delivery by drones. In addition, drones used for commercial purposes, including delivery, must be approved by the Civil Aviation Administration of China and registered.

Although everything is working in favor of the delivery of drones in China, the start of such operations has not been as quickly as some had expected. While drones are one part of the last-mile delivery solution, smaller aircraft face shorter battery life, lower endurance, and may be disrupted by weather. Larger cargo planes may solve these problems. In addition, self-driving vehicles, including delivery robots, have increased the speed of implementation in urban areas of China where they can carry more packages and larger batteries. It is also confined to the ground and thus does not experience changing weather at high altitudes.

However, China’s drone technology and implementation is way ahead of the United States. Amazon recently announced its first drone delivery service in Lockford, California, after receiving regulatory approval. The company has suffered from security holes and high turnover of its drone program.

China also surpasses the United States in the production of civilian and military drones, which has contributed to the technological and political conflict between the two countries. Outside of a commercial delivery service, the development of drones involves a number of ambiguous issues. Data security, human rights, and political alliances are topics that trouble China’s dominance of drone production and sales of military drones.

These issues are not prominent in drone delivery, which has helped increase logistical efficiency as well as customer satisfaction. As a result, commercial drone delivery in China holds a lot of hope and will continue to evolve in the coming years.

An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Meituan was expanding its drone delivery program to operate throughout Shenzhen. Widget has been corrected.

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