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China's Delivery Drones Are Already Fulfilling Orders In Rural Regions

At half the cost, drones are connecting remote areas to the joy of online shopping.

China's Delivery Drones Are Already Fulfilling Orders In Rural Regions

Photo: via JD.com

Admit it—you laughed to yourself when you first heard about Amazon’s plans to use drones to make deliveries. Quadcopter’s buzzing through the streets and ringing doorbells. Ridiculous, right? But many companies are now looking into similar ideas, from Google to UPS, and it looks like drone delivery is actually becoming a thing.

This week, JD.com, a kind of Chinese Amazon, proved why drones are so much better than humans in vans when it comes to deliveries in rural areas. The company launched its drone delivery service outside Suqian City, in East China's Jiangsu province, hometown of JD.com founder Liu Qiangdong.

Right now, the drones are taking parcels from central depots to rural delivery depots, so the actual house-calls are still made by people, but the advantages are already clear. Whereas a van takes hours to reach some of these remote locations, traveling through winding mountain roads, a drone can make the journey in under 20 minutes.

JD.com’s drones can carry up to 33 pounds of weight and travel up to 12 miles at speeds up to 34 mph. They can handle moderate rains and wind.

All this translates to the one thing online retailers are interested in: lower costs. According to China’s Xinhua news, the drones halve the cost of delivery to under 7.6 U.S. cents. JD.com plans to expand the coverage of its drones to other cities, whenever the local laws allow.

Cost is the main driver here, as it is for Amazon and for Swiss Post. The last mile of a delivery is the most expensive, because it uses people to do the slow work of door-to-door service. Anything that can help bring down that cost is attractive to retailers, because pretty much the only thing online retailers compete on is price and convenience.

It’s hard to see, though, how drones might actually manage the home delivery part of the equation. In the dense modern city, where many people on the same street get deliveries every day, perhaps the human worker is still the best approach. But for outlying rural areas, dropping off 30 pounds of parcels to the local village post office seems like a great idea.

And drone deliveries are likely to have another beneficial side effect. Packages will get smaller and lighter—no more , thanks goodness.

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