Alibaba deploys drones to deliver tea in China

1 / 2

A man takes close-up photos of the inside of a drone at an exhibition of unmanned aerial vehicles in Beijing

A man takes close-up photos of the inside of a drone at an exhibition of unmanned aerial vehicles in Beijing (AFP Photo/Greg Baker)

Echoing US online retailer Amazon, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba on Wednesday tested its first drone delivery service, promising to whisk ginger tea to customers within an hour despite tight controls on airspace.

Alibaba's flagship consumer-to-consumer marketplace Taobao, estimated to hold more than 90 percent of the Chinese market for such transactions, showed off a photo of a black and silver drone with helicopter-like propellers carrying a white box to launch the service.

But the option is confined to just three days and a few areas of three Chinese mega-cities -- the capital Beijing, commercial hub Shanghai and Guangzhou in the south -- and applies only to one brand of tea from one particular vendor, with a limit of 450 deliveries in total.

"For consumers... such a cool consumption experience will give them more surprises," Taobao said in a statement on its microblog.

Airspace in China is strictly controlled, with the majority used by the military. The government allows limited use of civil drones for activities ranging from rescue to observation, and operators are required to apply for permission beforehand.

Alibaba said in a statement the logistical arrangements were being handled by courier company YTO Express, which had received the necessary regulatory approvals for the trial service.

In 2013, a Shanghai bakery was forced to scrap plans to deliver cakes by drone after a test flight sparked concerns over public safety and attracted the scrutiny of police, state media have reported.

Regulatory issues have hampered plans by Amazon to offer drone deliveries in the United States.

Company founder Jeff Bezos said last year he hopes to move forward, but added the services could be delayed by red tape as US authorities were still considering proposals for commercial drone use.

Amazon has announced plans to develop a drone-based delivery system which would dispatch small packages in under 30 minutes.

Alibaba's drone launch comes after it last week locked horns with a powerful government regulator, which delivered an unusual dressing down of the company and accused it of allowing "illegal" actions on its e-commerce platforms, including sales of fake goods.

Taobao has pledged to crack down on counterfeit goods in response and Alibaba founder Jack Ma met with SAIC director Zhang Mao last week, which could signal a de-escalation of the dispute.

Alibaba, founded by Ma in 1999, is China's biggest e-commerce company. It listed on the New York Stock Exchange last year in the world's largest public offering to date.