While the launch of new drone cargo and remote package delivery operations in the United States and Europe has made global headlines of late, China, the world’s leading drone manufacturer and technology developer, refuses to be outdone. In recent weeks, two Chinese companies have announced an expansion of their own remote delivery operations – with cutting-edge features and capabilities that will likely outpace their Western counterparts.
One company, Antwork, has just received an enormous infusion of investment capital to expand its “last mile” medical supply deliveries to urban residents across China. The massive new investment – estimated at $314 million from two US firms, Thor Capital and Unity Ventures – will allow Antwork to expand its drone infrastructure dramatically to include an uncrewed hub station equipped with a drone port and cargo storage boxes and a cloud-based aerial traffic management system and scheduling software to support fully autonomous flight operations.
Once Antwork’s expanded operation is up and running – sometime later this year – it’s likely to become the most advanced remote medical supply system operating anywhere in the world.
Meanwhile, two other concerns – the Institute of Engineering Thermophysics of China and the Chinese aircraft manufacturer Longxing UAV Systems – have recently joined forces to develop the prototype for a new autonomous cargo drone designed to carry heavier freight – both civilian and military – to remote islands and mountainous areas in China.
The AT-200 drone is smaller — with less cargo space – than the recently announced “monster” drone produced by Tengden, another Chinese company, but it can fly continuously over 1,700 miles for eight hours. It also requires greatly reduced runway space for take-off and landing – just 150-200 meters, including unpaved surfaces, when fully loaded. It can reach areas completely inaccessible to traditional road and air transport, including larger cargo drones.
The AT-200 can be remotely piloted if necessary but can also fly completely autonomously, stopping at pre-programmed delivery sites without human intervention. The plane also comes with some of the most sophisticated sense-and-avoid technology available to reduce the threat of collisions with other aircraft or with physical terrain and infrastructure.
Chinese companies have a long-standing interest in remote delivery. Antwork first began testing prototypes in 2015-2016 at the dawn of the modern drone era, long before companies like Walmart or FedEx were gaining their first foothold in the industry. In 2019, China’s Civil Aviation Administration awarded Antwork the country’s first license for urban drone deliveries. (So far, the company has made 500,000 kms. worth of deliveries, without major safety incident). Originally, Antwork focused on trial delivery logistics with food giants such as KFC and Starbucks but once COVID-19 struck, the company shifted to remote medical supply delivery, a niche it now plans to carve out worldwide (rivaling Zipline’s expanding network of operations in Africa).
So far, the only US company with a significant cargo drone prototype in development is San Francisco-based El Roy Air. Its Chapparal protopye is a vertical take-off and landing aircraft that can also make deliveries to remote inaccessible areas. El Roy has partnered with a Dublin-based firm, LCI, with an extensive overseas client network, primarily geared toward disaster relief contingencies. LCI says some 100 of the first Chaparral prototypes have been pre-ordered but according to El Roy it could take at least two more years – 2025 – before its autonomous aircraft is fully operational and deployed in the field.
By that time, China’s rapidly advancing cargo and remote packaging drones – with support from the central government and even some Western investors – could well be flying everywhere.