- A JD.com drone successfully delivered backpacks and books to an elementary school in Parung Panjang, Indonesia, on Jan. 8, the company announced at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting last week. "We have been using drones for real deliveries in China for over two years now," said Jon Liao, Chief Strategy Officer at JD.com in a statement.
- The pilot was the first officially sanctioned test of drone delivery in the country, overseen by Indonesia’s Ministry of Transportation, Civil Aviation and Air Navigation, opening the "door for future commercial drone use in Indonesia and the Southeast Asia region," according to a JD.com release.
- The WEF debuted an "Advanced Drone Operator's Toolkit" at its annual meeting in an attempt to help governments develop regulation for commercial drone operations. Liao wrote in an article for the WEF that technology like drone delivery can serve to condense the technology gap between more affluent urban populations and poorer, more remote rural communities where mobile penetration is high, but logistics services are scarce, as is the case in parts of China and Southeast Asia.
Though drone deliveries have already begun in China, Indonesia is an example of a country with regulatory barriers to applying drone technology to e-commerce. In fact, it is increasingly clear that the adoption of drone technology for e-commerce logistics will be stunted not by technology — payload maximum weights and automated air traffic control for example — but by regulation.
After the U.K.'s Gatwick airport canceled nearly 1,000 flights in two days during the busy holiday season when drones were spotted, inconveniencing travelers and costing airlines millions, commercial drone adoption started to look somewhat less likely. These issues are leading airports and other high-security locations to invest in drone deterrent technology.
So far this year errant drones have already affected commercial flights at Heathrow and Newark airports.
In addition to interference with existing air traffic, issues in the way of widespread drone delivery also include privacy concerns around the necessary onboard cameras scanning the earth below.
Still, tests continue. Europe has the Safir initiative to determine how many drones can be safely kept from hitting each other in Brussels. And several FAA pilots are currently underway. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced remote identification standards for small unmanned aircraft are on the way this year, and the department may also soon allow drones to flyover crowds.
Plus, the DOT announced Jan. 14 it awarded three contracts to "develop technology to provide flight planning, communications, separation and weather services for these drones, which will operate under 400 feet."
More incidents of disruption and even harm are almost inevitable as drones, both commercial and hobby, become ubiquitous. The question remaining is will these incidents bring about more urgency to get regulations and norms in place, or will they generate more languor. What's certain is that while test and pilot programs continue elsewhere, Chinese companies like JD.com expand their lead.