Drone Deliveries Go Global

China introduces rural service, with other countries not far behind.

A drone from Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of Amazon, lifts off. (Alibaba.com)
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Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com just began delivering products by drone to customers outside Beijing and in the provinces of Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Jiangsu. The drone deliveries, which began on Singles’ Day with JD.com’s fleet of 30 Y-6 multirotor aircraft, mark a first for the Beijing region. The Singles’ Day rollout is the latest step in the company’s planned expansion of drone delivery service, possibly nationwide to both rural and urban areas, in the not-too-distant future.

Interest in drone delivery isn’t limited to China, of course. In March, DHL concluded a three-month trial using its Parcelcopter 3.0 to make flights to a remote Bavarian mountain village. The completely autonomous Parcelcopter, which required special governmental permission to fly, made several flights per week to the village. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and other European countries have hosted or will host trials of their own.

The United States isn’t far behind in this new way of shipping. WalMart, which this year announced its planned deployment of drones for warehouse inventory management, is serious about product delivery drones, as are Google and Amazon.com. Just a few weeks ago, UPS began real-world flight tests of its drone, delivering an inhaler to Children’s Island, near Boston, Massachusetts. Not long before that, 7-11 made history in Reno, Nevada, with the first (legal) home delivery of goods by drone in the United States. The two flights delivered hot and cold food.

And of couse, Domino’s is now delivering pizzas by drone—at least in New Zealand.

Has the drone delivery revolution begun? Many questions still remain about the logistics of this service, but one thing is already clear: the impact will be felt worldwide.

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About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Flight of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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