China’s largest online retailer JD.com plans to deploy large drones capable of carrying goods weighing up to one ton or more. Such mammoth aerial vehicles could even uplift small cars like Nissan’s Micra or Volkswagen’s Polo.
JD.com’s main objective is to improve the poor supply in remote areas, reaching millions of potential consumers outside China’s large cities, this way capturing a significant slice of the fast
expanding e-commerce cake in the rural parts of the country. According to the e-tailer, during stage one of the project, the drones will be operate in Shaanxi province, located in central China,
where the famous Silk Road, a former caravan route, once started respectively ended.
"We envision a network that will be able to efficiently transport goods between cities, and even between provinces, in the future," CEO Wang Zhenhui of JD.com's logistics business group announced on the occasion of the project’s official kick-off. The foundation has been laid since the e-commerce company has established a domestic network of thousands of delivery stores within China.
Vast opportunities but not without risks
It’s venture into the drone business started only last year, when China’s number 2 e-tailer after Alibaba deployed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to deliver online orders to buyers located in rural areas. So far, JD operates a fleet of more than 30 drones serving shoppers living in remote regions of Shaanxi, Sichuan, Jiangsu and some other Chinese provinces where road infrastructure is often poorly developed. With their targeted mega drones, the network of UAVs will not only expand but also pose new risks since a crash effected by technical failures or a collision might cause severe damage, raising new insurance and safety issues as well as the set-up of a back-up flight control systems to prevent accidents to happen. The large UAVs also will need special landing pads, approved and designated by the authorities.
According to JD, their future heavyweight drone delivery network in Shaanxi will extend over a 300-kilometer area and operate from air bases spread over the entire province.
They will transport consumer goods, industrial components or machinery parts to buyers while carrying agricultural produce to the cities on their way back, enabling a two-way traffic.
Experts believe that JD’s future generation of heavyweight drones, although subsidized by Shaanxi’s government with US$150 million, will not be ready for entry into service until 2020 – at the earliest!