Beijing-based international express delivery company DHL-Sinotrans has launched a full automated drone delivery service under a strategic partnership with autonomous aircraft developer Ehang.

The initial route, created for a DHL-Sinotrans customer, links the logistics company’s service center in Liaobu, Dongguan with the Songshanhu district of the city, which is in Guangdong Province.

The flight by Ehang’s Falcon multicopter drone covers 8 km (5 mi.) and reduces one-way delivery time to 8 min. from 40 min., bypassing surface traffic congestion, and can save up to 80% on cost, the partners said.

The customized route is being operated under the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s early pilot implementation policy for commercial unmanned-aircraft services, including package delivery.

The Falcon unmanned aircraft, which has eight propellers on four arms, can carry 5 kg (11 lb.) of cargo and takes off and lands on cabinets that enable autonomous loading and offloading of the shipment. The cabinets connect with automated processes including sorting, scanning and storage of express mail, and will feature functions such as facial recognition and identity scanning for customer pickup.

The drones—which Ehang says feature multiple redundant systems and secure flight control modules—are controlled from the company’s central command and control center, which monitors the drone flight path to ensure safety and reliability.

The control center provides automated avoidance of route conflicts, situation assessment and warnings in case of an emergency, avoiding no-fly zones and eliminates the risk of human manipulation, Ehang said.

DHL said it will continue to identify new routes that can be developed for customers requiring tailored services and will work with Ehang on a second generation of drones with increased capacity and range. Ehang, meanwhile, has unveiled its 184L drone, which can carry up to 260 kg of cargo.

Graham Warwick/Aviation Week