GBA Brief

How GBA drone firms are pushing ahead with pilot projects

Recent reports have highlighted how the skies in the Greater Bay Area could soon be buzzing with drones – and even the occasional air taxi. Put some of that down to the pioneering spirit of cities like Shenzhen.

Amazon made headlines this week by unveiling a new delivery drone that could start flying on commercial services “within months”. A rival drone from Alphabet-owned Wing was the first to get FAA certification in April. But the Brief wouldn’t bet against the GBA as the place where drones are a more regular sight in city skies.

In part that’s because of local firms of the pedigree of DJI, the world’s leading name in civilian-use drones. But there’s also an experimental mood across the region that has encouraged companies to press go on a series of pilot projects 

EHang, a drone manufacturer from Guangzhou, has just partnered with DHL Express, to launch a drone service for last-mile deliveries. The promotional footage shows a customer dropping off a package at a postal locker on a city street. A drone then takes off from the locker with the parcel, following an automated flight path through an ‘air express corridor’, before landing at another locker in nearby Dongguan.

DHL says it cuts delivery time from 40 minutes to 8 minutes by deploying one of EHang’s Falcon series. It now wants to open new routes, although flights seem likely to be restricted to designated routings through more rural districts and away from tall buildings and power lines. 

Another area where unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, could be deployed is a fleet of sniffer drones that check that ships sailing in GBA waters. Academics in Hong Kong have been working with Shenzhen researchers on drones that fly through ship engine smoke to collect data on how much sulphur is in the fuel.

Back in Shenzhen a third project that could take to the city’s skies is a partnership between Airbus and the Shenzhen Municipal Commerce Bureau that is promising to introduce air taxi services by the end of this year. 

In fact Airbus says the plan is for a staged approach, starting with helicopters and moving towards electronic vertical take-off and landing (or eVTOL) and next-generation vehicles. 

Last year the aircraft manufacturer opened an innovation centre in Shenzhen, where it has been testing new technologies including Urban Air Mobility (UAM), geek-speak for the flying taxis of the future. “I hope that we can prove together at the end of this year that this is not science fiction, but an existing reality and an option for people in Shenzhen,” the Airbus executive in charge told the China Daily. 

It might sound a little fanciful but Shenzhen has a history of transforming its transport systems. Two years ago it completed the conversion of its entire fleet of municipal buses to electric power and it now has more than 16,000 of them (compared to just 300 in the whole of the United States). Almost all of the city’s 21,000 taxis are electric-powered as well.

That kind of pioneering spirit signals a place that is prepared to experiment with new ways of travelling. Air taxis won’t rival the electrification of the bus network in their wider impact. But the project’s backers argue that urban air mobility is another part of the solution to tackling traffic congestion and air pollution in some of China’s largest cities.