International

Alibaba’s Very Limited Drone Tests: More Than a Stunt, Less Than a Pilot

Alibaba is testing product deliveries by drone this week — but not in a format that would be practical as a regular delivery service, according to Bloomberg News.

In one delivery planned for Wednesday (Feb. 4), a drone was scheduled to fly from a warehouse on the eastern outskirts of Beijing to the China World Trade Center in less than an hour — at which point a deliveryman would collect the package from the drone on the ground floor and carry it up to the customer, an Alibaba spokeswoman told Bloomberg.

Alibaba called the three days of tests — which started on Wednesday in Beijing before moving on to Shanghai and Guangzhou — a “one-off campaign” and “an effort to bring unique and innovative shopping experiences to consumers,” according to TechCrunch, which in turn called the tests a PR stunt. That may be fair, but understandable — since Alibaba said it had to clear hundreds of drone flights with aviation authorities, the company likely wanted to get as much bang for its yuan as possible.

The test deliveries are going to 450 pre-selected customers receiving a single product, a packet of ginger tea that weighs less than 340 grams (just under 12 ounces). The first 50 deliveries were set for Beijing, with the rest in the other cities, which are more densely populated. All the delivery addresses had to be within a specific radius from warehouses for Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace e-commerce unit.

While the test program clearly isn’t ambitious, it has the advantage that nothing involved in the tests is critical to customers or expensive to Alibaba if the drones go awry (except for the drones themselves). In some ways that makes the three-day test more a proof of concept than a full pilot test of drone deliveries.

Alibaba partnered with Shanghai-based YTO Express for the test runs, although details of who owns and operates the remote-controlled drones weren’t made public. A YTO spokesman told Bloomberg that his company has no specific plans to promote drones on a larger scale and many issues still had to be addressed for drone deliveries.

As exotic and impractical as drones currently seem for deliveries in large cities, Germany’s Deutsche Post already uses drones for scheduled deliveries of medicines to the island of Juist in the Wadden Sea wetlands area, and early in 2014 the United Arab Emirates began testing drones for deliveries of sensitive government documents.

Both Amazon and eBay have said they were considering using delivery drones, but neither company has gotten approval for tests in the U.S. Amazon is reportedly testing drones near Cambridge, England.

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