Alibaba is testing drones to deliver ginger tea ordered from its Taobao e-commerce website, the company confirmed on Wednesday, as it steps up efforts to compete with American rival Amazon.
The Chinese internet group has teamed up with delivery company Shanghai YTO Express Logistics to launch a drone delivery trial in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou on Wednesday, according to a blog post on Alibaba’s e-commerce news website Alizila.
The move follows Amazon’s announcement in 2013 that it would be testing drones to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less, although the program, dubbed “Prime Air,” has faced regulatory hurdles in the U.S.
Alibaba claims that its 49-renimbi ($7.84) ginger tea packets will be delivered within the hour.
Some 450 customers will take part in what the Chinese e-commerce giant described as a “one-off” test, in which tea ordered on Taobao between February 4-6 will be delivered to particular regions by drone on a first-come-first-serve basis
The drones won’t land directly on a consumer’s front door, but will instead land outside a residential buildings to be collected by human couriers who take over the final part of the delivery.
It comes just days after a drone made by Chinese company DJI crash-landed on the White House lawn, underlining concerns about unmanned vehicles in civilian airspace.
In the U.S., where drones are all-but banned, except when the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) grants exemptions. On Tuesday, the FAA dished out eight exemptions to companies for commercial use of small drones, however, indicating a willingness to progress in this area.
‘No further plans’
Regulation is also very tight in China, and operators of drones must seek permission from the Civil Aviation Administration of China before flying the machine.
And even Alibaba admitted that the full-scale use of delivery drones was some way off.
“By conducting the trial, Taobao and YTO Express officials aren’t hinting that drone-delivery service is ripe for commercialization… aviation authorities in China and the U.S. are pondering regulations to govern such activities,” the Alizila blog post said.
A spokesperson for Alibaba told CNBC it followed the regulations set by the aviation authority, and that there were “no further plans” for a delivery-by-drone scheme.