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First license issued for commercial drone deliveries in China

Chinese authorities have granted the first license for commercial drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) deliveries in the country.

On March 28, the East China Regional Administration of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) granted operating (pilot) license to a subsidiary of China’s leading courier company, SF Express, in Jiangxi province. SF express is the second largest courier in China after China Post.

The license allows the Shenzhen-based company to conduct commercial operation of drone deliveries in approved airspace nationwide. SF Express will start in a pilot zone in Nankang district of Ganzhou, a city in Jiangxi province, where it has been testing drone deliveries since June 2017.

Tian Min, head of technology at SF Express, said that the next step would be to expand the drone delivery operations across the whole province and ultimately nationwide.

Wang Zhiqing, deputy director of the CAAC, said, “The issuing of the license means that China has entered a new stage of drone transportation and it is also an integration of traditional airfreight with drones.”

Chinese companies ramping up drone delivery efforts

JD, China’s second-largest e-commerce player, formally opened a drone delivery station in Hainan province on 26 March. In February, the CAAC approved JD’s experimental drone deliveries in a pilot zone in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province.

JD launched a competition offering 100 million Yuan (US$16 million) to find solutions for conducting widespread drone delivery services across China.

In December 2017, it was reported that JD is planning to build 185 drone airports in Sichuan province , to develop logistics services for rural areas. It plans to use drones to deliver agricultural products from rural areas in Sichuan to cities across the country within 24 hours, reducing the logistics costs in rural areas by 50 to 70 percent.

A few days ago, Cainiao Network Technology Co Ltd, the logistics affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, demonstrated its drone transportation technology, by transporting tea leaves from Shifeng Mountain, next to Hangzhou’s West Lake, to the tea processing center in less than two minutes. Previously, it took pickers more than an hour to bring tea leaves down from hillside tea plantations.

Last year, Alibaba used drones developed by Cainiao to transport and deliver packages over water for the first time. According to China Daily, three drones carrying six boxes of passionfruit with a combined weight of around 12 kilograms flew from Putian in East China's Fujian province to nearby Meizhou Island on 31 October.

Globally, Amazon partnered with the UK Government in 2016 to trial drone deliveries. It has opened Prime Air development centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, France and Israel and is testing the vehicles in multiple international locations. In 2017, Amazon filed a patent for multi-level fulfillment centers that can accommodate the landing and takeoff of drones in dense urban setting.

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