Drones aren’t expected to start regularly delivering packages in the U.S. until 2020.

While drones in the United States won’t start delivering parcels on regular routes for a few years, in China it’s already happening.

JD.com, one of the largest online retailers in China second only to Alibaba, started its drone delivery program last year, flying parcels via unmanned aircraft to four provinces: Jiangsu, rural Beijing, Sichuan and Guangxi.

In those provinces, JD has regulatory approval to fly its drones, but this year the company is working to get approval from more local governments across China to expand its drone service. Right now JD offers drone delivery to about 20 fixed routes. By the end of 2017, though, the company aims to have 100 delivery routes open across the country.

JD designed its own aircraft, and there are five different types of drones that are used depending on the size of the parcel.

“We try to deliver with drones from cities to the countryside,” explained JD’s CEO Richard Liu. “In every village, we have a delivery man who lives in the village, and he will take the parcels

[delivered by drone] to different houses.” Each drone that flies may carry between eight and 15 packages that were ordered in the village.

Here’s how it works: Customers in areas that are eligible for drone delivery order products from JD, usually via a smartphone app. If those products are available in the warehouse, a drone will fly to the village and drop the package on a landing pad that’s managed by a liaison that works with the online retailer to receive and distribute the packages.

This is different from the approach Amazon is taking with drone delivery, where each drone delivers a parcel to an individual house. JD’s aircraft fly a fixed route, traveling from the distribution center to the landing pad in each location.

Amazon has been testing its delivery drones in the U.K. countryside for the past two years; a slow regulatory approval process in the U.S. was hindering the company’s ability to start testing its aircraft in its home country.

In the U.S., drone delivery isn’t expected to take off until at least 2020, while the Federal Aviation Administration continues to craft the rules and figure out a national low-altitude air traffic control system solution. It’s still not legal to fly a drone out of line of sight in the U.S. without special permission from the FAA.

Still, some companies have been able to get the FAA’s blessing to run trial flights. In November, 7-Eleven partnered with drone company Flirtey to complete 77 drone deliveries. All those deliveries were within one mile of the 7-Eleven that was part of the trial program and happened within line of sight of the drone operator.

Alibaba, the largest online retailer in China, ran a one-off trial of a drone delivery in 2015, but hasn’t done more with drones since.

For JD, drones are a way for the online retailer to expand into rural China without taking on massive delivery costs. Delivering by drone to rural areas can be at least 70 percent cheaper than delivery by truck, according to Liu, and only takes a fraction of the time, since drones can soar over traffic and mountainous regions alike.

Watch a video of JD’s drone delivery from last November.


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Author: April Glaser

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