Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com has taken a big step towards logistics automation, introducing a robot delivery service at several universities around the country.
The prospect of flying packages through the air has proven complex and, as companies from Amazon to Google are finding out, fraught with challenges. But autonomous delivery doesn’t have to leave the ground to be more efficient.
JD.com, China’s second-largest e-commerce company after Alibaba, has launched a robot delivery service that combines small, self-driving vehicles with smart locks and secure storage. The delivery ‘bots can be operated using a QR code.
They come in a range of sizes, are powered by electricity and have a range of 20 kilometers on a single charge.
JD.com launched its robot delivery service on June 18 across several universities campuses in Beijing. Students, who are open to and familiar with new technologies are seen as the perfect guinea pigs for JD.com’s initial trial runs.
The company has stated that one of the next steps will be to develop a facial recognition system to replace QR code scanning, which will allow customers to unlock their parcels more easily.
The move represents JD’s first public display of its robot delivery technology. And it appears as though huge progress has been made since last November when R&D costs for a single robot were on average 600,000 yuan ($88,125).
Over the past six months, JD’s driverless program team, led by engineer Zhang Chao, has managed to lower that cost to just 50,000 yuan ($7,343) per robot.
The company estimates that, in time, the use of autonomous robots can bring down delivery costs from 7 yuan ($1) per human delivery to 1.5 yuan ($0.2).
Aerial delivery still in JD.com’s sights
The progress of JD’s ground game doesn’t mean the company is ignoring the potential of aerial delivery. The recently-formed JD Logistics is currently trialing the world’s largest-scale drone delivery network. In a move well beyond anything we’ve seen from Amazon, JD Logistics hopes its drones will deliver packages weighing as much as 2,200 pounds.
As we’ve seen with organizations such as the French postal service, these drone deliveries are first being tested in rural areas. Eventually, JD plans to revolutionize distribution in Chinese agriculture. By flying produce from local farmers to cities, rough country roads are avoided. Fruits and vegetables are less likely to spoil as a result.
JD.com chairman Liu Qiangdong has emphasized the company’s focus on innovation and technology in recent times. At the group’s annual meeting in February, he outlined JD.com’s 12-year plan as: “technology, technology, technology.”
He has suggested that logistics automation will be rolled out relatively quickly. “Our logistics systems can be unmanned and 100% automated in 5 to 8 years,” he said.