One of China’s biggest e-commerce operators is planning to build a logistics network with drones at its backbone, as it seeks to further expand its e-commerce business in rural China.
JD.com — the second largest e-commerce company in China after Alibaba — said that it will enter a partnership with civil aviation authorities in Shaanxi, northern China to develop a drone that could hold more than a ton of cargo.
The drones are expected to be of a 300 km (186 mi) low-altitude network that includes hundreds of routes and drone air-bases for e-commerce shipments, according to the South China Morning Post.
JD.com operates its own logistics network across China, much like Amazon, and only works with established businesses, while Alibaba owns marketplaces like Taobao that are open to individuals.
It’s not the first time JD.com and its rival Alibaba have used drones in deliveries — in November last year, JD.com launched a drone delivery program serving areas in the outskirts of Beijing, Jiangsu, Shaanxi and Sichuan, while Alibaba has trialled drone deliveries since 2015.
But JD.com is thinking beyond last-mile drone delivery solutions like Amazon Prime — it wants to use drones to replace conventional transportation methods.
The e-commerce giant is partnering with Shaanxi’s government to pour in around $150 million into the province, where JD.com will build the headquarters for its logistics operations.
The drones are expected to help overcome difficulties posed by poor infrastructure — before drones, deliveries from e-commerce operators were done on motorcycles.
Drones will help ship goods between urban and rural areas, and bridge an important divide between JD.com and a huge potential customer pool. Around half of China’s population lives in rural areas, where delivery routes are few and far between.
“We envision a network that will be able to efficiently transport goods between cities, and even between provinces, in the future,” JD.com’s chief Wang Zhenhui said.
The network will help rural farmers bring their produce to urban markets quickly, Josh Gartner, a JD.com spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal.
The drone’s proposed 1-ton payload would essentially break records — while giant military drones exist and have been in use for years, commercial drones have yet to reach a similar scale.
Shaanxi’s local National Civil Aerospace Industrial Base is expected to provide enormous support to make the drone a reality, according to Sohu Tech.
The government arm is building a town to demonstrate how a drone-based logistics network will look like, as well as providing nearly 1,500 square meters (16,146 sq ft) of research and development space and a 13.3 hectare area for test flights.