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Alibaba-owned food delivery service to use drones for deliveries in Shanghai

ele.me starts making food deliveries by drones in Shanghai. Photo: Handout

China's leading food delivery app ele.me has been approved by the local authorities to launch unmanned aerial vehicle-enabled food delivery service in Shanghai, months after it was bought by Alibaba Group, which is dedicated to building a smart logistics network nationwide.

As part of a plan to commercialize the application of unmanned aerial vehicles in food delivery service, which was set two years ago, ele.me has initially chosen 17 food delivery routes basically operated by drones to serve customers in office buildings, residential developments and schools in the city's Jinshan Development Park, which covers an area of 58 square kilometers.

The food delivery routes, with each being served by 3-4 unmanned aerial vehicles, connect more than 100 restaurants and shops with customers, who will enjoy a shorter waiting time of 20 minutes, compared to the previous 30 minutes.

An unmanned aerial vehicle is able to fly up to 65 kilometers per hour with a maximum load capacity of 10 kilograms.

At present, two delivery staff are still needed in the process of delivery by drones, with one responsible for loading food packages onto a drone at the starting point and the other unloading it at the destination point and then manually delivering it to customers.

Kang Jia, chief operating officer of ele.me, said that food delivery by unmanned aerial vehicles is more cost-effective than manual delivery as a drone can cover almost 70 percent of the delivery route. The efficiency will be more obvious with the number of orders increasing and the delivery radius of unmanned aerial vehicles expanding, said Kang, adding that drones will be deployed on the long-haul routes with high density of deliveries.

The executive also said that unmanned aerial vehicles will help mitigate the effects of bad weather on food delivery.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in food delivery in the Jinshan Development Park is considered as a pilot operation for the new technology-powered service, given the less complicated traffic conditions in the sparsely populated industrial park. But the company said that the food delivery service by unmanned aerial vehicles will be available nationwide by the end of this year, even though some cities like Beijing have put limits on the use of drones following a series of incidents of drones straying into aircraft flight paths.

In early 2016, ele.me rolled out the "future logistics" strategy, which sets drone-enabled food delivery and intelligent ordering as its ultimate goal, which it says is expected to be realized in the next 3-5 years.

What is more, the food delivery service provider is also mulling the launch of a second-generation delivery robot, which will double as mobile goods shelf.

Currently, ele.me has applied robots to food delivery service for customers in the office buildings in Shanghai's Hongqiao transportation hub, saving the time taken by delivery staff to climb stairs.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in food delivery in Shanghai comes two months after e-commerce giant Alibaba acquired ele.me.

At the Global Smart Logistics Summit 2018 held last week in Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, founder Jack Ma vowed to give strong support to the proposed $15.6 billion national backbone network of intelligent logistics, which will help reduce the logistics costs to less than 5 percent of China's gross domestic product.

The project also sets a global vision. The logistics network will materialize the 72-hour delivery globally, especially in regions covered by the Beijing-backed Belt and Road Initiative, said Ma.


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