Chinese logistics companies are beefing up efforts to apply unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, to logistics and delivery activities, as part of a broader drive to enhance logistics efficiency and lower delivery costs in rural areas, as well as gain an edge in the fiercely competitive marketplace.
Rakuten Inc, a Japanese internet services company, recently completed a successful demonstration of delivering supplies via drone flights in a mountainous region in Japan by leveraging the drones and technology of JD Logistics, a unit of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.
Xiao Jun, president of JD-X, JD's research and logistics innovation lab, said the company has been using drones for deliveries in China in the past few years, adding that this is one way it is innovating to make logistics more accessible, reliable and cost effective.
"As we push the bounds of what our autonomous delivery technology can do and explore its use in a wider range of applications from e-commerce to humanitarian support, we believe it will continue to bring significant benefits to people around the world," Xiao said.
During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, the company completed delivery of daily necessities via drone to Baiyang Lake, Hebei province. It took the drone just a few minutes to fly about 2 kilometers over the lake to a village on the other side.
The company also plans to employ drone deliveries in other cities such as Hohhot, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and a city in Jilin province.
JD has invested heavily in drone logistics in recent years. In 2019, it announced the completion of the company's first government-approved drone flight in Indonesia－marking a breakthrough for drone delivery services in Southeast Asia. The successful flight opened the door for future commercial drone use in Indonesia and the region.
Given the fact that Indonesia is spread out across many islands, the implementation of drones for regular use in e-commerce deliveries, as well as other logistics-related services, will enable citizens in Indonesia to enjoy more efficient and reliable services.
In some remote areas across China where the terrain is complex and infrastructure is poor, logistics can be challenging. The Beijing-based company successfully used drones to deliver online purchases to rural shoppers in Jiangsu province in 2016, kicking off the e-commerce giant's use of unmanned aircraft for distribution purposes.
It also used aerial drones to regularly deliver packages in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, during the June 18 shopping festival in 2017.
Pan Xuefei, a senior analyst at market research firm IDC, said the use of drones for delivery services is just at an initial stage. "We still need time to see large-scale application," Pan said, adding that drones were mainly used to improve delivery efficiency in remote mountainous areas and sparsely populated areas.
Chinese logistics giant SF Holdings completed the country's first cargo trial operation of a large unmanned aerial vehicle in August, laying a solid foundation for future commercial operations in the segment.
Unlike small delivery drones that deliver single packages to individual recipients at nearby locations, SF's giant drones are capable of flying longer with a maximum takeoff weight of 5.25 metric tons. It is also designed to reach a maximum flight distance of 1,200 kilometers at a speed of 180 km/h.
The drone took off from the Ningxia Hui autonomous region and landed safely in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region about one hour later after flying over difficult terrain such as mountains, canyons, wetlands and deserts.
Large drones are expected to effectively solve problems in logistics and delivery and inefficient transportation modalities in remote areas, said Liu Dong, head of the public affairs department at SF Express Ningxia.
Liu said the large drones can deliver high-value and seasonal specialties such as beef, mutton, fresh dates and Goji berries in Ningxia to consumers across the nation in a timely and reliable fashion.
Cainiao Network Technology, the logistics affiliate of Alibaba Group, opened its first unmanned shipping operations in Shaanxi province in 2018. The company aims to use drones to deliver high value-added products such as fresh foods and medical supplies.
Delivery giants are aware of the significance of intelligent logistics, said Lu Zhenwang, CEO of Wanqing Consultancy in Shanghai, adding that they have invested heavily in the intelligent logistics sector on things like drones, robots and driverless cars to gain the upper hand amid fierce competition.