China’s largest delivery company completed its first autonomous cargo drone flight
SF Holdings wants plane-size cargo drones to deliver goods to rural areas in China.
Companies around the world are building unmanned civilian aircraft for the freight business
Using small drones to deliver packages straight to your door isn’t a new idea: businesses from Amazon to UPS are already experimenting with the technology. But now the company that owns China’s largest express delivery service is taking the concept further.
SF Holdings said it successfully completed a trial of the country’s first unmanned cargo flight in northwest China last Friday. Unlike some companies that are testing small delivery drones to drop off a single package at nearby locations, SF’s aircraft is said to be capable of flying longer with a payload of up to 1.5 tonnes.
The giant drone is designed to reach a maximum flight distance of 1,200km at a speed of 180km per hour. On Friday, it flew nearly an hour from the mountainous region of Ningxia to Inner Mongolia.
This puts autonomous delivery into a different category from what many other companies have been working on. Amazon revealed last year that its Prime Air drone can fly up to 24km and deliver a package that weighs a little more than 2kg.
Unmanned cargo aircraft are designed to carry more goods over longer distances than smaller delivery drones.
SF said it hopes to use these autonomous aircraft to bring goods to rural areas that have long suffered from slow and sporadic deliveries.
The idea is to have piloted planes ship the cargo to a central location. Then an unmanned aircraft can shuttle the goods to smaller towns nearby. Small delivery drones can pick up from there, bringing the packages to individual recipients.
SF’s test aircraft is made in China by Wuhan-based manufacturer China Aerospace Times Electronics. It joins a number of companies around the world that are also working to make pilotless cargo flights a reality.
California-based Sabrewing, for instance, is building a drone designed to carry a payload of more than 2,400kg over a distance of 1,850km. It’s expected to begin service in 2022. Another Californian start-up, Nautilus, reportedly wants to finish a 60-metre-long freight drone this year, roughly the size of a Boeing 777 airliner.
Others are focusing on smaller drones for short-distance deliveries. In addition to Amazon, Alphabet’s Wing lets users order food and groceries on an app for drone delivery. The service is currently available in select neighbourhoods in Finland, Australia and the US.
SF set up its unmanned aerial vehicle unit in 2017 to research ways to incorporate drones of various sizes into its business. The delivery giant said it has now received government approval for drone trials along nine routes in China.
But SF isn’t alone in this area in China: e-commerce giant JD.com has been testing its own drone deliveries in rural areas.