A drone takes off from an Antwork landing station with a medical delivery in Xinchang county, Zhejiang province in February 2020. (Image credit: Antwork)

As doctors in Xinchang County, Zhejiang test patients for Covid-19, they’re using a tool borrowed from the Jetsons: flying robots are helping them move testing samples and supplies faster than they could go on roads.

The semi-rural county offers a preview of a world many expect to live in soon. People have talked about airborne deliveries for years. With the Covid-19 crisis, the players are lining up to make it happen.

When doctors at the People’s Hospital need to send a sample for testing, they go to an Antwork landing pad. At the tap of a smartphone, a heavy six-bladed drone lifts off, carrying a briefcase-sized payload on the approximately 2.5-mile-trip to the local public health testing center.

Antwork, a Hangzhou-based startup, has put its drone logistics system into practice a few months ahead of schedule to deliver nucleic acid testing samples between two hospitals to local public health authorities in Xinchang county.

In the wake of the highly infectious illness, Chinese tech companies, especially takeaway and on-demand service platforms, have proposed a “contactless delivery” initiative, appealing to food delivery drivers or couriers to avoid direct contact with customers.

While “contactless delivery” may avoid potential contagion among people, pickup and delivery service platforms are facing a more serious problem: a workforce shortage.

The epidemic in China has stopped millions of migrant workers, a key source of delivery drivers, from returning to big cities after the Spring Festival holiday. Some companies have started to pilot unmanned technologies to meet the huge demand for food and e-commerce deliveries.

Food delivery platform Meituan rolled out a driverless delivery service in Beijing earlier last month to deliver groceries to customers in the city. JD.com, the e-commerce giant, said it had completed its first delivery of medical supplies via autonomous vehicles in Wuhan last month.

While the two big companies have been talking about drone deliveries also, the Hangzhou startup is the first one in China to send pilotless aircraft to the sky during the coronavirus outbreak.

The system that Antwork has been developing for nearly five years uses airborne drones and autonomous road vehicles to deliver packages in cities. The company plans to use the flying drones for longer trips between a network of helipad drone stations, and earthbound robots for last-mile delivery.

The Xinchang county network, which was first put into use in early February, skips the cars and flies parcels directly to stations placed on hospital grounds.

The company was already planning to start with hospitals. “We were planning to launch the drone logistics system for commercial medical uses later this year anyway, but the epidemic outbreak has pushed us to put it into real-life use now,” Zhao Liang, co-founder and chief operating officer of Antwork, told TechNode.

The company said in a statement (in Chinese) that the system it set up in Xinchang county delivers medical supplies and nucleic acid testing kits between two downtown locations and one satellite town.

The company said in the statement that the initial flights showed that the system saved more than half of the time needed to deliver using ground transport.

Green light from regulators

In a crisis, bureaucracy acted fast, cutting red tape to get drones in the sky.

Zhao told TechNode that Antwork started to reach out to local governments in different cities after Jan. 23, when Wuhan, where the epidemic started, announced a lockdown. After a short negotiation, the local government in Xinchang county accepted the company’s offer, and the company soon got approval from China’s aviation regulators.

“It took us around one week to get a license to conduct drone deliveries in Xinchang from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC),” said Zhao. He said that the process usually takes a few months.

A medic places a shipment in an Antwork drone delivery station in Xinchang People’s Hospital in February 2020. (Image credit: Antwork)

Regulators are, understandably, usually very cautious about allowing experimental robots to fly at low altitudes in Chinese cities. Antwork sought permission in 2019 for a trial in Hangzhou, which required it to pass the CAAC’s Specific Operations Risk Assessment, a multi-stage process of risk evaluation for certain unmanned aircraft operations. 

Zhao told TechNode in an interview last year that the whole process lasted more than six months because the CAAC was very “cautious and strict” about the assessment. In July, the company was granted a one-year license to conduct urban parcel delivery using drones in Hangzhou.

Mass application?

The crisis got drones in the sky quickly—but will it make a difference to the long term trajectory of the industry? The company says its plans haven’t changed much.

Antwork’s technology was designed to use drones and autonomous vehicles to make deliveries instead of human labor to cut costs in China’s multi-billion food delivery and courier markets. Last year, it completed an experimental delivery for fast-food chain KFC in Hangzhou.

However, the company says it has no present plans to deploy its system to deliver food or packages.

“Compared to the demands of medical supplies in hospitals, people’s needs to order takeaways appears to be a less important matter,” said Zhao.

For now, the company is focused on crisis response. The system used in Xinchang county is free of charge at the moment. The company plans to mass-deploy the technology in different sectors in the future, but, Zhao says, that will need approval from regulators.

“[The one-year] license could be extended under normal circumstances,” he said, adding that the company is still applying to expand the service to other cities. 

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. Before joining TechNode, he wrote about... More by Wei Sheng

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