Slowly but surely – Diplomat

Overseas, China’s sales of armed drones have been widely reported, but last year we heard less about the progress of its delivery drones. Delivery drones are helping express delivery companies address declining profit margins, especially the profitability issues associated with last mile delivery. China has expanded the use of delivery drones to address delivery issues in remote rural areas as well as high demand in cities. Companies like Meituan and JD.com are delivering drones to customers to meet demand.

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

Last mile delivery is especially expensive in rural China, where delivery points are far apart, crossing can be difficult, and mountains and other landforms act as barriers to order fulfillment. With a growing e-commerce market in rural areas, drones can move to remote areas. Delivery drones are flying to rural areas to overcome the lack of logistics transportation.

In urban areas, the use of drones requires a special permit due to their low-altitude presence. Even then, excessive traffic in some places made drone deliveries more convenient than human deliveries.

JD and Meituan have developed drone delivery technologies and processes. JD started drone delivery in 2015 and has since built a three-tier UAV logistics distribution system and navigation logistics system for trunk lines, spurs and terminals. Trunk line drones can cover an area of ​​300 kilometers to move goods from warehouse to warehouse with a large ton-class drone. Branch drones can quickly move small batches between logistics sub-centers, and terminal drones are sent to remote areas to solve the problem of last mile delivery.

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Meituan started its drone delivery business two years ago and has reached 8,000 customers in Shenzhen through a pilot program. The program includes seven kiosk delivery districts that are easily accessible to customers. Meituan has applied for jobs throughout Shenzhen, a city whose streets are crammed with cars. Meituan also announced plans to build an experimental center in Shanghai for its drone logistics network.

Meituan has had to overcome technical challenges, such as programming the drones to be fully autonomous rather than remotely controlled and carry packages of varying weights. Such problems have been solved by using reliable navigation systems and equipping drones with a backup power plant.

Package weight is becoming less of a limiting factor. To increase the weight of cargo that can be transported, Chinese companies are expanding the use of cargo drones. Last month, China’s first unmanned cargo ship flew in Jingmen, Hubei Province. The cargo drone can fly with a 500-kilogram payload over a distance of up to 500 kilometers. Such cargo drones will move out of the testing phase and become operational in the next decade.

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

While everything is working in favor of drone delivery in China, the rollout of such operations is not happening as quickly as some expected. While drones form part of the last mile delivery solution, smaller drones face lower battery life, lower payload capacity, and can be interrupted by weather factors. Large cargo drones can solve these problems. In addition, autonomous vehicles, including delivery robots, have taken off faster in China’s urban areas because they can carry more packages and hold larger batteries. They are also ground bound and therefore do not face variable weather at high altitude.

Despite this, Chinese technology and drone adoption is ahead of the United States. Amazon recently announced its first drone delivery service in Lockford, California after it received regulatory approval. The company has been busy with security breaches and high turnover in its drone program.

China also surpasses the US in the production of civilian and military drones, which has contributed to the technological and political conflict between the two countries. Aside from a commercial delivery service, drone development comes with a number of uncertainties. Data security, human rights, and political alliances are topics that stand in the way of China’s dominance in the production and sale of military drones.

These issues are not as important with drone deliveries, which has helped improve logistics efficiency as well as customer satisfaction. As a result, commercial drone delivery in China holds great promise and will continue to grow in the coming years.