Is drone delivery the future of ecommerce? That’s an open question, but the concept looks to be taking a big blow in China this month, with authorities slated to roll out regulations that will reportedly ban urban drone delivery.
Currently, drones exist in a relatively unregulated space in China. But at the General Aviation Development Summit in Beijing last week, China Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) secretary Ke Yuyu revealed that a new set of draft regulations on drones are due to be released this month. These new rules have already been passed by China’s Civil Aviation Administration and are currently in the middle of other approval procedures.
As they stand, the regulations don’t look good for those who were hoping that drones would one day replace China’s fast-delivery bike couriers. Ke says the regulations would require registration and aviation authority approval for drones over 25 kg (55 lbs), and drones capable of carrying cargo or weighing more than 150 kg (330 lbs) would be subject to even more stringent restrictions. But passing those restrictions won’t change things for ecommerce players, because according to Ke the regulations ban drone delivery outright in congested urban areas.
These regulations haven’t been formally passed or even released yet, so it’s possible that Ke is mistaken or that the final draft could include changes. Certainly, ecommerce players with plans for drone delivery (like Alibaba) may want to lobby aviation authorities for looser rules. And of course, we still don’t know the specifics, so it’s possible the regulations sound harsher in summary than they are in actuality.
Whether they’re as harsh as they sound or not, the new rules likely aren’t a permanent ban. Instead, they’re more of a recognition that drone technology isn’t sophisticated enough yet. In its current state, drone delivery in urban environments could be dangerous due to the high number of obstacles and the high probability of people getting hurt if there is an accident. So while urban drone delivery will be banned for now, it might well be unbanned at some point in the future if authorities are convinced the technology is there to do it safely.