China’s second largest e-commerce company JD.com unveiled a new brand of self-driving delivery robots on Sunday, and college kids were the first ones to get to test them out.
The company showed off their latest invention at a shopping festival at six Chinese universities, including Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University and Chang’an University. The initial test drive was held at Renmin University, the alma mater of JD.com CEO and founder Liu Qiangdong.
Despite being in its early stages of development, the bots can plan the fastest route from a warehouse to a customer, send text message alerts when packages arrive and charge via QR code scanners.
They run on electric power and come in a variety of sizes, carrying up to five packages at once, according to Quartz. On a full battery, they can travel up to 20 km at a speed of 15 km per hour (although they slow down to the speed of pedestrians on college campuses).
Liu believes that this kind of technology is the future of e-commerce — not just for college students, but for the rural, more isolated parts of the world too.
“In the past, it’s very hard to do business in the countryside, because the logistics fee is very high, the cost is too high,” Liu said in an interview with CNBC.
The delivery bots may be new, but JD.com already has flying drones that travel up to 100 km per hour, carrying packages that weigh 30kg or less. These couriers can easily reach people in rural areas, without the cost of delivering by car or train.
“In each village, we have a delivery man,” Liu explained. “He lives there and works there, and he’s got a backyard. He’s like a small distributor of us in that village. So we can use our drone to fly to the delivery man’s backyard directly. And point-to-point is fixed.”
JD.com ranks just behind its main competitor Alibaba as the largest e-commerce company in China. Liu says that the growing middle class in rural areas creates more opportunities for his company to set itself apart. This technology could help do just that (of course, Alibaba has been tinkering with drone deliveries as well).
“That kind of logistic fee will drop down at least 70%, so on our balance sheet, I think it will be profitable,” Liu said.
According to the GB Times, JD.com plans to release 100 more drones in Beijing, Hangzhou and Xi’an, but wants to keep them confined to secure areas like college campuses and private communities, at least for now.
As for the many human jobs that robots and drones could replace, Liu thinks that JD.com’s growth will create more job opportunities, not less.
“We still need a lot of humans to use the camera, to observe or control the drone, the delivery robotics, and the people-free warehouse,” he told CNBC. “We still need a lot of workers to maintain or fix the whole system.”
For Liu, the successful robot deliveries were only one step in the right direction. He said that he wants e-commerce to keep moving forward.
“I think it will bring a lot of revolution,” he said.
By Caroline Roy
[Images via People’s Daily / China Money Network]
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