A subsidiary of SF Holdings, which owns giant courier firm SF Express, has been granted the first license for delivering goods via drones. Testing of drones for logistics is already underway by several companies in China including retailer JD.com, which opened its own first UAV distribution center the previous day, but this is the first time that a company will legally be able to make real deliveries to customers.

The East China Regional Administration of the Civil Aviation Administration of China gave a provisional (or pilot, if you will) license to Jiangxi Fengyu Shuntu Technology Company, a subsidiary of SF Holdings on 27 March according to Xinhua (in Chinese). The permit allows the company to make deliveries.

SF Express intends to create a three-stage airborne delivery network. Firstly planes will transport large quantities of goods nationwide, then large drones will distribute goods locally and small-scale UAVs will make deliveries to customers.

Rural areas stand to gain the most from drone deliveries in China. Areas with dense populations already have rapid ground-based courier networks. SF Express has been investing heavily in its capabilities and equipment. It has been buying and leasing aircraft as part of an air freight network and has recently acquired its own airport to create a major hub. China is a mountainous country. Mountains, hills, and plateaus make up 70% of the country meaning vast regions are difficult to access by road. Drones offer a new way for delivery companies to improve their coverage and delivery times.

Online retailer JD which operates its own delivery network also launched its first UAV distribution center, in Haikou, the capital of Hainan. Its first drone took off on 26 March on its way to the company’s first Hainan delivery (in Chinese). Hainan is an island off the southern coast of the mainland and is highly mountainous and so a suitable testing ground for the format. JD has ambitions to be able to deliver anywhere in the country within 24 hours.

Frank Hersey is a Beijing-based tech reporter who's been coming to China since 2001. He tries to go beyond the headlines to explain the context and impact of developments in China's tech sector. Get in...

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