Much has been written abroad about China’s sales of armed drones, but we heard less about the progress of its delivery drones last year. Delivery drones are helping express delivery companies deal with declining profits, especially profitability issues associated with last-mile shipments. China has increased the use of delivery drones to address the problem of remote rural deliveries as well as high urban demand pressures. Companies like Meituan and JD.com are delivering drone deliveries to customers to keep up with demand.
Drones can help solve major supply chain problems, especially last-mile delivery issues and freight bottlenecks. Last-mile delivery, the logistics involved in getting products to the customer’s doorstep, is the most expensive aspect of delivery and can account for more than half of transportation costs. Indeed, this last part of the shipping process usually involves several stops.
Last-mile delivery is particularly costly in rural China, where delivery destinations are remote and terrain can be difficult to traverse, with mountains and other terrain acting as barriers to order fulfillment. With a growing e-commerce market in rural areas, drones are able to navigate remote areas. Delivery drones are flying to rural areas to make up for a lack of logistical transport.
In urban areas, the use of drones requires special authorization due to their presence at low altitude. Even then, excessive traffic in some places had made drone deliveries more convenient than human deliveries.
JD and Meituan have developed drone delivery technologies and processes. JD began drone delivery in 2015, and has since established a three-level UAV airworthy distribution and logistics system for main lines, branch lines and terminals. Main line drones can cover 300 kilometers area to move products from warehouse to warehouse via big ton drone. Branch line drones can quickly transfer smaller batches between logistics sub-centers, and terminal drones go to remote areas to solve the last-mile delivery problem.
Meituan started drone delivery operations two years ago and reached 8,000 customers in Shenzhen under a pilot program. The program includes seven neighborhoods, delivering meals to kiosks that are easily accessible to customers. Meituan asked to operate throughout Shenzhen, a city where the streets are crowded with cars. Meituan also announced plans to build a pilot center in Shanghai for its drone logistics network.
Meituan had to overcome technical issues, such as programming drones to be fully autonomous rather than remote controls and carrying packages of varying weights. These issues have been addressed by using robust navigation systems and equipping the drones with spare powertrain capability.
The weight of packages is becoming less and less of 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 the city of Jingmen, Hubei. The cargo drone can fly a 500 kilogram load up to 500 kilometers. These cargo drones will emerge from the testing phase to become operational over the next decade.
Notably, Chinese regulations lend themselves to the operation of drones. The first national standard for express drone delivery service came into force in January 2021. This rule sets out the requirements for conditions, procedures and safety issues for express drone delivery. Additionally, drones used for commercial purposes, including delivery, must be approved and registered with the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
For all that works in favor of drone delivery in China, the deployment of such operations has not been as rapid as some had expected. While drones have been part of the last mile delivery solution, smaller drones have lower battery life, lower charging capacity and can be interrupted by weather factors. Larger cargo drones can solve these problems. Additionally, autonomous vehicles, including delivery robots, have accelerated their implementation in Chinese urban areas, as they can carry more packages and hold larger batteries. They are also confined to the ground and therefore do not face variable weather conditions at high altitudes.
Even so, the technology and implementation of delivery drones in China are ahead of those in the United States. Amazon recently announced its first drone delivery service in Lockeford, California after receiving regulatory approval. The company has been plagued by security lapses and high turnover in 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 nations. Apart from commercial delivery service, drone development involves a number of obscure issues. Data security, human rights and political alliances are topics that plague China’s dominance over drone production and military drone sales.
These issues are not prominent in drone delivery, which has helped increase logistics efficiency as well as customer satisfaction. As a result, the delivery of commercial drones in China is very promising and will continue to grow in the years to come.