Chinese companies are going all-out on unmanned systems for delivery logistics. A fleet of new autonomous cargo drones, robotic trucks, and fast quadcopters are private-sector developments that are making China a future world leader in robotics.
Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce firm, is already making drone deliveries in Shanghai. Through the software of its Ele.me subsidiary, Alibaba’s drones grab meals and other packages and fly them between delivery points. Human drivers then shuttle the packages the final distance to the customer. By using aircraft, the delivery service can skip China’s crowded roads, cutting total delivery time to 20 minutes for customers in the participating area. Currently, drone delivery is only for the 22.5-square-mile Shanghai Jinshan Industrial Park, but there are plans to expand the program to other cities in coming years.
Alibaba is also planning to start mass production of the world’s first solid-state LiDAR delivery robot, which uses a laser-based guidance system to navigate roads without the need for a human. The G Plus, which is a four-wheeled small truck, has a top speed of 10 mph (dropping to 6 mph when sharing the roads and sidewalks with pedestrians and cars). Once it reaches its destination, customers can unlock it using an app or a passcode. Alibaba states that the G Plus can even act as a smart, mobile coffee vendor. A similar vehicle will take to U.S. streets soon to deliver groceries as part of a trial program.
The G Plus has three of Robosense’s solid-state LiDAR, which uses lasers to scan a precise 3D map of the environment (the way radar uses radio waves to scan environments), in order to avoid obstacles and find the best path. Unlike other LiDAR systems, which use hundreds of laser emitters, the Robosense RS-LiDAR M1Pre uses only a few solid-state lasers, reducing cost and complexity.
JD.com, China’s second-largest ecommerce firm, started robotic delivery of packages in Beijing, on the campus of Renmin University. Zhang Chao, the engineer for JD.com’s automatic driving research and development center, claimed that JD had reduced the price of the robot trucks by over 90 percent, from $88,000 to $7,500. JD is going all-in on automated logistics, with a $4.5 billion AI hub in Guangdong, 200 delivery drone airports, and fully automated warehouses.
Beihang Unmanned Aircraft System Technology will enter into an agreement with Cainiao, an Alibaba controlled company, to build an unmanned aerial system (UAS). The 3.6-ton super drone will have a 565-cubic-foot cabin (large enough to fit nine people) and fly autonomously for a 932 miles, with a payload of 1 ton. Cainaio and Beihang hope to start test flights in 2020, and begin mass deployment in 2025.
The burgeoning private Chinese civilian effort in developing these technologies points to a future that will change not just sales and delivery inside China, but also abroad, as many of the key companies have a global presence. It also suggests that the PLA could rely more heavily on civilian sources for its future unmanned technologies.
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Peter Warren Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He has been named by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues. He was also dubbed an official “Mad Scientist” for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Jeffrey is a national security professional in the greater D.C. area. They both are Associates with the U.S. Air Force University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.