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A model of the heavy lifting cargo drone being developed by Beihang UAS. Photo: Handout

Chinese companies are testing civilian drones that can carry a tonne of cargo


Chinese companies are testing civilian drones that can carry more than a tonne of cargo as the country’s couriers and on-demand services increasingly look to adopt unmanned aerial vehicles for deliveries.

Drones being developed by Beihang Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) will next year be able to carry cargo weighing from one metric tonne to 1.5 tonnes, the equivalent of a sports car. The delivery drone, which is 11.9 metres long with a wingspan of 19.6 metres, will be able to fly a distance of 1,500 kilometres with cargo weighing one tonne, or 1,000 kilometres carrying 1.2 tonnes, the company said, adding that it could reach a top speed of 400 kilometres per hour.

“When we design and develop the drones, we follow the principles of high efficiency, intelligence and safety,” Yin Wei, chairman of Chinese motor and generator maker Changying Xinzhi Technology, the parent company of Beihang UAS, said at the Global Smart Logistics Summit in eastern China’s Hangzhou city on Thursday.

Yin said the company is currently designing the drones and will conduct test flights next year.

Drone makers such as Beihang UAS are tapping into the growing interest from couriers and on-demand service providers to use drones to deliver goods and services. China’s parcel delivery industry is expected to grow by between 25 and 30 per cent in coming years, according to Huachuang Securities.

SF Express, China’s largest publicly listed courier, has developed a delivery drone with a wingspan of 20 metres and length of 10 metres that can carry 1.2 tonnes of cargo. That drone can fly 3,000 kilometres and reach a height of 6,000 metres, according to a company statement in December.

Beihang UAS has entered into a strategic partnership with logistics firm Cainiao to develop and market the delivery drones, state media China Daily reported, adding that they are believed to be the world’s biggest for civilian use.

Beihang UAS, a spin-off from Beihang University in Beijing, is also developing a 14.4-metre multiple-use water landing drone with a wingspan of 14.6 metres, which will be able to fly 2,000 kilometres carrying up to 1.5 tonnes of cargo, Yin told the logistics summit, which was organised by Cainiao.

Alibaba Group, China’s largest e-commerce platform and Cainiao’s parent company, is willing to invest several hundred billion yuan into its logistics business, its executive chairman Jack Ma said on Thursday. Speaking at the same summit, Ma said that only by building up a strong and fast logistics network can China revamp its manufacturing industry.

Alibaba said in September that it would invest 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion) to strengthen its global logistics network over the next five years. Alibaba is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

Besides commercial cargo, take away food is also going to be delivered to customers via drones., one of China’s biggest online food delivery platforms, will use drones to deliver takeaway meals ordered online in Shanghai, guaranteeing 20 minutes door-to-door, the company said on Tuesday.

Deliveries in the Shanghai Jinshan Industrial Park, which covers an area of about 58 square kilometres (22.4 square miles), are expected to benefit more than 100 food merchants doing business there, the company said. Under new city government rules for the programme, drones will transport meals to and from two fixed locations within each route.