JD.com, one of the largest online retailers in China, announced that it plans to develop a drone capable of carrying one ton of cargo for deliveries to and from remote parts of the country. The company will test its drone technology in the northwestern Chinese province of Shaanxi, where the online retailer has reached an agreement with the local government to test a low-altitude drone logistics network. Stretching over an 186-mile radius across Shaanxi, the drone logistics network will service hundreds of flight routes and air bases designed to optimize shipping online orders.
A spokesperson from JD told Recode that the company probably won’t have its one-ton capacity drone ready to fly for another two to three years. The early application for that drone will likely be to deliver food from agricultural centers in rural China into cities, rather than for last-mile delivery like the smaller drones already in use. Delivering by drone to China’s remote rural areas can be at least 70 percent cheaper than by truck, according to JD’s CEO Richard Liu, and only takes a fraction of the time, since drones can soar over congested traffic and mountainous regions.
JD started its drone delivery program last year, sending parcels via unmanned aircraft to four provinces: Jiangsu, rural Beijing, Sichuan and Guangxi. As of January 2017, the online retailer reported having only about 20 fixed routes but said that it plans to expand to 100 routes by the end of this year.
The Chinese e-commerce giant’s drone delivery scheme is markedly different from Amazon’s plan to use drones. Instead of the drone delivering directly to customers’ doorsteps, a local delivery person retrieves the cargo from the drone, which may carry between eight and 15 packages that were ordered by people in the village. The delivery person then brings the packages to people’s doors. Amazon, on the other hand, has shown how it plans to use drones to deliver directly to people’s houses, as opposed to grouping local shipments like JD.
It seems drone delivery will be the norm for online retailers in ten years from now. But before thousands of drones hit the skies to make widespread package delivery a reality, some kind of air traffic control system will be necessary to make sure drones can fly autonomously without colliding into each other. At the other hemisphere of the planet, NASA in collaboration with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is already working on Project Wing; the experimental drone delivery project at Alphabet’s X “moonshot” umbrella organization — tested a new system to manage drone traffic
The problem of tracking and managing drone flights will be critical to figuring out before drone delivery can come to fruition. Drones don’t take off and land from the same place on set routes — in the way airplanes use airports — but rather are supposed to work more like cars, going directly to and from homes and offices. Operators will need to know where other drones are flying in order to prevent collisions, as well as which areas to avoid and when.
There is still no comprehensive nationwide U.S. system for tracking drone traffic, which is one reason why it’s not legal for drones to fly beyond the line of sight of the operator. In Project Wing’s test, the team was able to track the flight paths of multiple drones at once on a single platform. Three of the drones were Project Wing’s own aircraft, a winged drone that the company hopes will one day be used to deliver food and retail items. Another drone in the test was made and operated by Intel and a third drone was an Inspire from DJI. Those two were simulating search and rescue operations, while Wing’s three drones were testing delivery scenarios. With Wing’s drone air traffic control system, the drones automatically steered away from each other without an operator needing to pilot the drones to manually avoid a collision. The software helps drones plan routes and sends information to aircraft when an airspace restriction is issued. NASA and the FAA aren’t scheduled to be done with their research into how to integrate drone air traffic control into the national airspace until 2019. But that doesn’t necessarily mean drone delivery will have to wait that long, especially since Trump aims to privatize and detach air traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration within three years.