By Duncan Gordon
The world’s leading consumer drones manufacturer, DJI, is based in the entrepreneurial heart of southern China, Shenzhen. When drones first came on the seen, they were regarded as a grown-ups’ toy; a cool gadget with which to make slick videos or take aerial photographs. However, in China, as in other countries, society is starting to wake up to the much broader potential of these flying machines.
Earlier this month, CNBC reported that JD.com, China’s second largest online retailer is in the process of constructing 150 drone launch centres targeting rural consumers. This was already well known to Chinese people, as JD.com released a statement outlining their plans in November last year. Ordering goods online for city dwellers in China is convenient, cheap and fast. However, as JD.com explained, rural citizens don’t have so many options. Drones can help deliver goods to areas with inaccessible terrain or in very remote locations.
It is not just the online shopping industry that drones are swooping into. Their potential use in agriculture is becoming more and more well-recognized in China and elsewhere. Today, China Daily reports that DJI is teaming up with Qianxun Spatial Intelligence Inc, “a company that uses China’s homegrown BeiDou Navigation Satellite System for location and data analysis services,” to explore the possibilities of combining their capabilities and applying them to farming.
The article goes on, “the partners are bullish about the prospects for drones, especially agricultural models, used to spray pesticide, and say that BeiDou’s highly accurate positioning service is one of its major advantages, especially in agriculture.”
Indeed, the South China Morning Post noted last year that the market for drone use on plantations is worth thirty billion yuan per year, while the government is encouraging the standardization of their use in the industry.
Having outlined the wide range of possibilities for the productive utilization of drones in China, it is worth pointing out that there are concerns. Most of the worries are to do with security and safety. As anyone can buy a drone and, in theory, fly it anywhere, there are understandable fears that they could get up to no good. Sixth Tone explained the story of 23-year-old Hangzhou resident Yuan, who flew his drone too close to passenger aircraft and, like Icarus flying too close to the Sun, fell back down to Earth (or in Yuan’s case; landed in police custody). China, along with other countries that have seen similar incidents reported in the news, has been introducing laws to try to combat the threat of wayward drones.
Although the technology faces significant practical and legal challenges, the possibilities for the application of drone technology in a wide range of industries abound, and China is at the forefront of the technology’s development.