Caixin
BUSINESS & TECH

SF Express Flies Ahead of Rivals With Commercial Drone Permit From Military

By Wang Qionghui and Song Shiqing
SF Express Co. Ltd. will provide drone delivery services inside a pilot zone in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, where SF Express and the local government will jointly push forward drone deliveries. Photo: IC
SF Express Co. Ltd. will provide drone delivery services inside a pilot zone in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, where SF Express and the local government will jointly push forward drone deliveries. Photo: IC

Leading courier SF Express will launch a pilot program to deliver packages by drone in southeastern China, after receiving the military’s first-ever permission to operate commercial drones in the nation’s tightly controlled airspace.

Local governments have been working with drone operators on how to regulate a sector filled with promise but blocked commercially without the military’s permission to use designated airspace.

SF Express Co. Ltd. will be the only eligible courier to provide drone delivery services inside a pilot zone in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, where SF Express and the local government will jointly push forward drone deliveries. The license gives SF Express a head start over JD.com Inc., its major rival in drone delivery development.

Both SF Express and JD.com are developing drones to better serve underdeveloped rural areas, where rugged terrain and poor infrastructure translate into expensive, time-consuming deliveries. In Ganzhou, where the SF Express’ demonstration airspace is located, 76% is forested and more than 83% is mountainous, government data showed.

On Thursday, SF Express delivered its first package by drone in the airspace, which covers five counties in the Nankang district of Ganzhou.

The license is a huge moment in drone development, and means drones will indeed come into the frontline of the courier’s delivering business, the company told Caixin on Friday.

SF Express confirmed that it had filed an application jointly with the Nankang district government for the license, which was approved by the Eastern Theater Command, one of the five war zones of the People’s Liberation Army.

SF Express unveiled several drones that can carry packages weighing between 5 kilograms (11 pounds) to 25 kilograms and fly between 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) to 100 kilometers. Part of the pioneering wave of Chinese logistics and delivery companies developing drone technology, SF Express started research as early as 2012. It has obtained 151 drone-related patents so far.

JD.com, China’s second-biggest e-commerce platform, made a high-profile debut of its drones last year, announcing in April an ambitious plan to build 150 air bases for drones.

JD.com hasn’t obtained a license from the military yet, so it must submit a flight plan to the military’s air-traffic control department each time it flies a drone.

SF Express didn’t disclose how long the license it received is good for, nor did the company provide details on how the license will work.

Contact reporter Song Shiqing (shiqingsong@caixin.com)

Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code
Copyright © 2017 Caixin Global Limited. All Rights Reserved.