Sky's the limit in UAV autonomous push

Domestic tech giants see bright future prospects on rising use of pilotless flights

By WANG KEJU | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-25 09:22
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Online services platform Meituan's unmanned aerial vehicle delivers food orders in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, in May. PHOTO/CHINA DAILY

In late May, an unmanned aerial vehicle belonging to online services platform Meituan soared through the air, navigating its way to a designated drop-off point in Shenzhen Talent Park, Guangdong province, which sits in close proximity to the headquarters of such tech giants as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu.

It seamlessly docked at its intended pad, efficiently placing a food order into a specially designed storage compartment. As one drone completed its delivery, another drone took off, ready to embark on a new airborne mission to satiate appetites and quench thirst.

"I ordered a Starbucks beverage valued at 36 yuan ($4.96), which typically costs 39 yuan when ordered in person," said Cheng Zhe, a 28-year-old coder who opted to try out a drone delivery, adding that he not only saved a few yuan, but also enjoyed the added benefit of free delivery.

The application of drones in the delivery sector is just a fraction of the broader low-altitude economy. As the airspace opens up in a well-paced manner, a wide range of industries and sectors are exploring the possibility of utilizing UAVs for various purposes.

According to a report by the China Center for Information Industry Development released in April, China's low-altitude economy, worth 505.95 billion yuan in 2023, registered a year-on-year growth rate of 33.8 percent that year.

As the sector continues to expand along with improved infrastructure, it is poised to exceed the trillion-yuan mark by 2026, the report noted.

The low-altitude economy comprises 85 percent UAVs and 15 percent general aviation, said Yang Jincai, director of the Shenzhen Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry Association in Guangdong.

This emerging sector is a dynamic and creative one that operates below an altitude of 1,000 meters, with the possibility of extending to 3,000 meters under special circumstances, presenting a wide range of applications and operational scenarios, Yang said.

The development of the low-altitude economy has been constrained by airspace regulations. Taking Meituan's drone delivery service as an example, drones are required to fly along predetermined routes at a maximum height of 120 meters, limiting their operations to designated areas.

In response to this challenge, the Civil Aviation Administration of China announced plans in late May to collaborate with relevant departments to initiate airspace classifications and low-altitude airspace management reforms, aiming to increase the availability of airspace for low-altitude operations.

The low-altitude economy is now making its way into everyday life, driven by the use of drones to enhance visitor experience in the tourism sector.

Traditional food delivery services often face challenges when it comes to accessing scenic areas due to restrictions. This inconvenience has forced visitors to walk considerable distances to collect their orders, said Yang.

By utilizing drones, visitors can have their orders delivered directly to them within the park, eliminating the need for long walks to the entrance. This efficient delivery service has quickly become a popular and highly sought-after experience among tourists, Yang added.

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