Drones' mission to fight poverty

By Wei Jia
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, May 10, 2018
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When you think about delivery by drones, you probably envision a sleek flying machine whooshing over a leafy neighborhood before gently descending and dropping off its cargo in front of a futuristic house.

A JD drone, or JDrone during a test flight. [Photo credit/VCG]
A JD drone, or JDrone during a test flight. [Photo credit/VCG]

Tech-avid cities, however, are only part of the story about how transport drones can change people's lives.

A case in point is a promise made by Liu Qiangdong, the founder and CEO of JD.com, a leading e-retail platform in China, to Pingshitou, a village in Hebei province looking for way out of poverty.

Since 2015, JD has been helping the county that includes Pingshitou fight poverty, mostly by boosting local sources of income such as tea, porcelain and mushrooms. The villagers of Pingshitou were so impressed by what Liu's company had done that they asked him to be their honorary village chief, a request Liu, born in a poor village himself, readily accepted.

The villagers knew they had made the right choice when Liu announced during his inauguration speech that he would make them ten times richer by the end of 2022 (the average annual income of Pingshitou was 3,200 yuan, about US$500, in 2016). The rousing promise was backed by more than Liu's personal commitment to eliminating poverty, as the cutting-edge drone technology developed by JD was exploring its potential away from urban areas.

The hilly terrain of Pingshitou means taking walnuts, the village's major produce, to outside markets is arduous. This puts real life limitations on the villagers' ability to make money, which is where JD's drone fleet comes in.

One of the earliest proponents of drone deliveries in China, JD set up its drone research department, JDX, in May 2016 and conducted its first drone delivery service in the same year. About one and a half years later, the most advanced JD drones were able to serve a radius of 240 km, with a top speed of 100 km/h, according to Liu.

JD took its first step in turning the rapid progress of its drone research into tangible benefits for people living in Pingshitou by conducting their first drone transport test in the village on March 16 this year. As the drone was being put through its paces, excited villagers took out their phones to capture a glimpse into the future, some wondering if drones could bring fertilizer to the village.

For JD VT1, a logistics drone unveiled in August last year that's capable of carrying packages as heavy as 200 kilograms, that should not be much of a challenge. Drones with even higher weight limits are also in the pipeline.

JD has launched regular drone service in nearly 30 villages in the provinces of Shaanxi and Jiangsu to facilitate the transport of produce since 2016, eager in their pursuit to fight poverty with drones. In December 2017, Liu announced that JD planned to build 185 drone airports across Sichuan province, weaving a network of transport that can send produce from deep in the mountains to anywhere in the country within 20 hours.

While much technology seems to be employed in specs one-upmanship, producing increasingly pricey gadgets that people only recently began to find it hard to live without, JD's poverty-fighting drones are a bracing reminder that in their unglamorous missions to far-flung areas where most people are yet to see an iPhone, technology can make a difference that matters. 

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