E-commerce giant JD.com to let drones do the heavy lifting in China’s rural areas
Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com has plans to build a low-altitude drone logistics network in the northwestern Chinese of province Shaanxi as it looks towards expanding its logistics and e-commerce business to rural areas in the country.
The network will span a 300-kilometre radius and include hundreds of routes and drone air bases for e-commerce shipments, according to the company. Heavy-load drones are expected to be able to carry loads of over a ton, and will be able to transport products to both remote areas and cities.
The company’s move is part of a larger industry trend, where e-commerce companies such as Alibaba and US-based Amazon look toward automating deliveries and shortening delivery times for e-commerce customers. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.
Rural areas with poor infrastructure have long posed a challenge for Chinese e-commerce companies, as deliveries can be difficult to make. Drone deliveries would open up a larger customer base for e-commerce companies like JD.com and Alibaba, since about half of China’s population still live in rural areas where delivery routes can be scant.
“JD.com will be the first in the world to test drone delivery on this scale. We envision a network that will be able to efficiently transport goods between cities, and even between provinces, in the future,” said Wang Zhenhui, chief executive of JD Logistics, JD.com’s newly-established business group.
JD.com already operates its own logistics network across China, with its own warehouses and delivery workers. In contrast, its largest rival Alibaba works with a network of delivery companies via its logistics arm Cainiao.
Last year, JD.com started trialling drone deliveries to remote countrysides outside of Beijing, and in Jiangsu, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces.
In 2015, Alibaba partnered with delivery company Shanghai YTO Express in a drone delivery trial, with the aim of delivering tea packets via drones to hundreds of Chinese customers.
Most drone tests by e-commerce companies so far have involved only lightweight packages – for example, Amazon’s Prime Air trialled drone deliveries last December, but limited packages to a maximum of five pounds (2.3 kg).