Despite tech breakthroughs, regulatory hurdles prevent business from taking off

Source:Xinhua-Global Times Published: 2016/8/2 19:53:39 Last Updated: 2016/8/3 8:25:19

Imagine standing outside your home as a drone hovering high above gently lowers a package onto your doorstep. Guess what? It's already a reality. But if you think you'll be able to start receiving drone-delivered packages anytime soon, you're going to be disappointed. Although companies have shown that it's possible to fly packages into the eager hands of their customers, the drone delivery business needs to overcome significant legal and regulatory barriers before it can go mainstream. Governments in China and the US have strict rules in place that limit where drones can fly and what they can carry, among other things. And until the legal and safety wrinkles are ironed out, the drone delivery business will likely remained grounded.


A drone carries packages from Inc to customers in Suqian, East China’s Jiangsu Province on June 8, the first time the Internet retailer tested drone delivery. Photo: CFP

E-commerce giant Amazon has struck a deal with the British government to conduct drone package delivery testing in the country, almost two years after it was banned from such testing by US authorities.

The latest deal allowed Amazon to develop and test technologies in three main areas: When drones can't be seen by their pilots; stopping the drones crashing into buildings; and where one person flies multiple drones at once, US-based Wired reported, according to a report by Reuters.

In 2013, Amazon revealed its Prime Air program in an interview on 60 Minutes, a plan for Amazon to use drone technology to autonomously deliver packages to customers' doorsteps within 30 minutes of ordering.

Google has been working on a plan called Project Wing, hoping to rapidly deliver products across a city by drones with full-scale testing being carried out in Australia.

In a YouTube video that Google has uploaded, it showed off a five-foot single-wing drone that could fly thousands of feet in the air and gently lower packages to the ground using a winch. The tech giant hopes to release its drone delivery service to the public in 2017.

Despite those technical breakthroughs, experts have warned against its possibility.

"It is technically possible to deliver a package by drone but the practice still faces challenges as far as law and safety problems are concerned," said Chen Bingwen, a researcher with the Beijing-based Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Research Institute.

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) got in Amazon's way by refusing to approve Amazon's application to test drones in a rural area outside Seattle in 2014, which has led to the company's relocation of its research and development to Canada, the UK and the Netherlands.

FAA requirements effectively ban drone deliveries by requiring operators to retain a line of sight, avoid flying drones over people, and stick to a low weight limit, according to a report by Wall Street Journal on June 26.

China keeping up

Chinese tech companies have not fallen behind their US counterparts and have revealed their own drone delivery plans.

Shunfeng Express, one of the leading express companies in China, has been testing its drone delivery system by flying more than 500 flights per day, hoping to carry packages to the inaccessible countryside and accumulate data for future reference.

Shunfeng has already purchased 100,000 drones, and plans to start a drone delivery service in the near future, reported on July 26. Inc, one of the largest online retailers in China, successfully completed its first drone delivery on June 8, during which a drone carried a package to its destination 10 kilometers away in 10 minutes.

The company has three types of drones, all of which can carry packages with weights ranging from 10 kilograms to 15 kilograms and fly distances ranging from five kilometers to 10 kilometers. After automatically dropping off their packages, the drones can fly themselves home on autopilot.

The company was reportedly authorized by the aviation administration to fly under 120 meters in Suqian, East China's Jiangsu Province.

"Delivery in the sparsely populated countryside can be very costly as it takes too much time and energy just for one package. Drone delivery perfectly solves this problem," Liu Qiangdong, CEO of JD, told industry web portal Sina Tech.

"If we can use drones on a large scale in the future, the cost of delivery in the countryside can be significantly reduced," Liu said.

But large-scale drone delivery has yet to be possible in China as the Civil Aviation Administration of China requires license or administration by an association, which are not in place, for any unmanned aerial vehicle weighing more than seven kilograms or flying out of the pilot's sight.

"The flying routes of drones need careful planning to avoid densely populated areas and overcrowded airspace, which is not possible under current regulations," Chen said.

"Even if it is granted by the authorities, we still must be very careful about drone delivery simply because of safety issues, because it can easily be used for smuggling, drug trafficking and terrorist purposes," he noted.

Technological limitations

Just because companies have shown that it is possible to make deliveries with drones doesn't mean the endeavor has cleared every technological hurdle.

Range is one limiting factor. Battery life, cargo weight and flight environment all affect how far a drone can fly on any given trip, complicating the logistics of drone deliveries.

More commercial drones these days are powered by lithium batteries that last about 20 minutes if the drone is in flight, according to The weight of the package it carries also limits how far it can fly.

It may seem obvious, but drones have to be able to avoid crashing into things. And current research and development into obstacle avoidance is still in an early stage.

"The current obstacle avoidance system is far from intelligent," Yao Zhiping, market manager at Shenzhen-based drone manufacturer GDU Technology Co, was quoted as saying by on May 11.

"The solution is to install a large number of sensors, but it is quite costly."

Newspaper headline: Unmanning drone delivery

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