The Internet marketplace Alibaba has begun live trials of a drone-based delivery system in China, making it the latest e-commerce company to test remote-controlled copter deliveries with actual customers. It follows the Chinese courier company SF Express, which started experimenting with drone delivery more than a year ago.
Meanwhile, Amazon—which hyped the possibility of drone delivery last November—has yet to receive approval for similar U.S. tests involving actual customers. While the company has been testing its proposed Prime Air service on its own U.S. property and in unspecified overseas locations, there’s so far no indication that it’s delivered test packages to urban residents the way Alibaba is doing.
See also: Why We Need A New Word For Drones
Here’s what Alibaba is doing, per Bloomberg:
Asia’s largest Internet company is partnering with Shanghai YTO Express Logistics Co. to deliver ginger tea packets to 450 Chinese customers who volunteered for the one-time drone tests, according to an e-mailed statement from Alibaba. Remote-controlled helicopters are expected to distribute 50 parcels from Alibaba’s Taobabo Marketplace in Beijing Wednesday, before moving to Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The Alibaba tests are scheduled to run through Friday.
Catching Some Air
The prospect of drone delivery has captivated several of the largest Internet companies in the world. Amazon waits, like many others, for the FAA to issue regulations pertaining to unmanned aerial vehicles so it can launch Amazon Prime Air, which in theory will “safely get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less.”
Even Google likely has an interest in how the Alibaba tests go, as it’s been testing its own drone program in Australia.
Originally, the FAA said it planned to publish a draft of those regulations by the end of 2014. Reuters reported that the FAA had sent a draft of the new rules to the White House in October. An FAA spokesman told me that “[w]e are continuing to work with our administration colleagues to finish the rule. Our goal is to get the proposal right. We are looking to publish it as soon as possible.”
The FAA has granted several exemptions for commercial drone use, though to Amazon’s chagrin, deliveries still aren’t an approved use despite its best efforts. Even once it gets FAA approval, Amazon has other obstacles it needs to solve before its drone delivery system is finalized. A recent crash onto the White House lawn has raised safety concerns regarding all drone pilots.
The Alibaba drone tests will need to comply with Chinese aviation rules. According to Bloomberg, the Chinese military relinquishes only about 20 percent of available airspace to civilian use, and Chinese authorities are still considering how to license drone pilots.
Photo courtesy of Alibaba