Chinese retail giant JD.com announced on Monday that it is planning to build China’s largest low-altitude drone logistics network, which will span a 300-kilometer radius and include hundreds of drone flying routes and drone air bases throughout the country’s Shaanxi province, according to a company press release.
The network will provide hundreds of routes for e-commerce shipments and heavy-load drones are expected to be able to carry shipments weighing more than a ton, transporting different types of products back and forth between cities and agricultural areas, JD.com said.
JD.com is also planning to build a research and development campus, where delivery drones will be developed manufactured and tested. It will also serve has a headquarters for JD Logistics, JD.com’s recently formed logistics unit. That campus will be established in partnership with the Xi’an National Civil Aerospace Industrial Base, according to the company.
The company claims it will be the first in the world to test drone delivery on such a large scale, a claim that is hard to verify, but also hard to argue. Amazon, Google and other very large companies might be doing things behind the scenes with drone delivery that we’re not aware of, and are likely also planning networks for drone delivery, but nothing of this scale.
JD.com is gaining the edge on this new network as well as the use of heavy-load drones. Not a lot of companies have discussed plans for such drones in traditional freight transportation applications, though at least a couple of analysts have previously told Retail Dive that industrial applications could present a more viable use of drones in the short term than drone delivery to consumers.
What JD.com has planned sounds like some sort of drone transport superhighway, which could also be beneficial for other companies, such as JD.com investor Wal-Mart. Although it's unclear whether the U.S. retail giant will also have access to those routes.
JD.com is in the right country regulation-wise to get this project built out quickly. Companies pursuing drone delivery in China have the benefit of having fewer regulatory hurdles in front of them, while in the U.S., it probably will be at least another two years before we see government regulations specific to drone delivery and the development of the market on even a small scale.
This massive project comes as the company is making a major push into the logistics business. JD Logistics, which will call the new R&D campus home, is fairly new.
JD.com already claims to have the largest e-commerce logistics infrastructure in China, supporting more than 236 million customers and covering 98% of China's population of nearly 1.4 billion people via a nationwide network of automated fulfillment centers, hundreds of warehouses and thousands of delivery stations. The company says it already can support next-day or same-day service to more than 600 million people, and delivery drone will only help it build on those numbers.