Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has revealed a small scale pilot program that delivers products to Chinese buyers with unmanned aerial vehicles.
The drone-based delivery program is being trialled over a three day campaign for its marketplace channel, Taobao, and TechCrunch report that the trial is “seriously limited” to only 450 packets of tea, to be delivered throughout three of China’s largest cities on a first-come-first-served basis. Deliveries are expected to arrive within one hour of the order.
“This one-off campaign is an effort to bring unique and innovative shopping experiences to consumers on Alibaba’s e-commerce ecosystem,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch through a statement.
“China is still in the initial phase of establishing regulations on commercial usage of drones, a lot of areas are still completely blank,” Zhang Qihuai, attorney with Beijing-based Lanpeng Law Firm, told Bloomberg. “Key regulations regarding flight altitude, accountability for accidents have not been established yet. There’s still a long way to go before drone can really be commercial used in China.”
The campaign is a big development for Alibaba, even with pundits claiming the trial is more about style than substance. Chinese airspace is largely the domain of the military (roughly one fifth is allocated for commercial use); while it may be a while before the service is adopted full-time, a successful trial that goes uncontested by the Chinese government could open the doors for more relaxed drone use in regions with more liberal drone controls.
Australia has also dabbled in drone delivery in the past. Sydney based startup Flirtey trialled a drone service in conjunction with textbook rental service Zookal in late 2013. Despite the trial’s success, the group has since relocated to a new base of operations in the US after Australian airspace regulation body CASA tightened laws restricting the use of drones. The CASA enforces drone regulations tightly, with enthusiast users in Australia receiving fines stemming from uploaded drone footage to YouTube.