Postal business soars with help of drones

Updated 2018-05-16 10:47:04 Xinhua

Yang Daxue gets up early and goes to the post office in town to watch the drone take off.

"I have only seen it on television, and I never expected that we would use drones to deliver mail here," said Yang, a shop owner in Weicheng Township, in Qingzhen City of southwest China's Guizhou Province. "It flies and delivers mail really quickly."

Weicheng in Guizhou is surrounded by lush green mountains making transport in the area very difficult.

To make mail delivery easier, local postal authorties have resorted to drones to help with mail delivery for Yingyan, Yinqiao, Maixiang, Xingguang and Lianhuasi, five of the most remote villages of the town, as part of the pilot program.

The multi-rotor drone, more than a meter in diameter, consists of six propellers. A green box, bearing the China Post logo is lodged underneath the aircraft.

Taking off every Monday and Thursday, the drone is capable of transporting newspapers, letters and packages up to a total of 4.4 kilograms with a single battery charge.

Many residents in the township have never seen a drone, and every flight draws a big crowd.

The unmanned aircraft's takeoff and landing spot is located on the rooftop of the China Post branch in Weicheng, operated by Wang Hua, a postman at the branch.

"In the past, sending letters to these five villages could take a whole day," Wang said.

Although the villages is not very far away from the branch in terms of distance, Wang said his deliveries on motorcycle were often delayed by dangerous traffic conditions such as steep paths and sharp bends in the road.

"Not to mention getting covered with ice during the winter and getting muddy on rainy days," he said.

"Such deliveries have been shortened to less than two hours thanks to the drone, which follows designed routes and is operated via a smartphone application," Wang said.

Wang now lays a red-and-blue parking apron on the ground, loads the drone with mail and parcels, scans the QR code on the drones battery and on the aircraft with his smartphone, and taps the "launch" button before the drone takes off.

According to Wang, technicians with the drone's manufacturer in the eastern province of Zhejiang monitor and measure the real-time wind speed at the back-end. In the case of weather disruption, the drone will deviate from the route, land at a pre-arranged place and return automatically.

At a maximum speed of 12 meters per second, the drone is capable of flying up to 100 meters above the ground within 10 seconds, and takes slightly more than one hour to finish its route.

To finish the set route with the 10-minute flight distance from one village to another, the battery needs to be replaced with a fully charged one when the drone arrives in each village, "like a relay," Wang said.

A WeChat group has been established so that the drone's caretakers from the five villages can inform each other about its whereabouts.

Wen Bing is one of the drone's caretakers in Yingyan Village. Upon receiving the takeoff notice, she checks the real-time flight position on her smartphone, and lays out the parking apron on the village square.

After the aircraft lands, she quickly takes out the mail and parcels, loads the drone with a fully charged battery, and scans the QR codes before the drone flies to its next destination.

The drone usually delivers newspapers and letters to Wen, but pairs of shoes are occasionally sent by villagers working in other provinces. "It would take two hours to walk to the township and fetch them if it were not for the drone," she said.

The branch post office offers postal services to more than 80,000 people living in 30 villages in the townships of Weicheng and Anliu with only three postmen, said Chen Zhongxiang, postmaster of the branch.

Chen, whose father was also a postman of the township, is glad to see that the drone guarantees the safety of both the postmen and mail, while reducing the postmen's workload.

"I remember as a kid, my father would often go out to deliver mail for days, whether it was rainy or windy," Chen said. "At that time, postmen like my father walked or rode on horses to send mail."

Chen was a postman for seven years himself, so he can relate to the postmen.

"We might add more flights if the pilot program goes well, but the traditional ways of postal delivery have not yet been replaced due to the drone's payload limitation," Chen said.

"My biggest wish is that the drone can deliver heavier packages," said Wen Bing, the drone caretaker. "I hope that with the drone, online shopping will be much more convenient for the villagers."

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