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Off to a Flying Start
Despite safety concerns, drones become a labor of love
By Yuan Yuan | NO. 42 OCTOBER 15, 2015

Developers from Skywave Science & Technology Co. Ltd. test a drone in a hi-tech industrial development zone in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, on August 6 (XINHUA)

In its infancy, the drone had been designated as a tool in the military and hi-tech fields. Today, however, thanks to one Chinese rock star, it has gathered attention as a useful vessel delivering elaborate symbols of affection.

On February 8, pop star Wang Feng had a diamond ring delivered for his girlfriend, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon heroine Zhang Ziyi, at her 36th birthday party. Pictures show Zhang, completely surprised, covering her face in awe as her boyfriend reached into the basket, carried by a hovering drone, before getting on one knee as part of an ostentatious marriage proposal.

"I do!" Zhang later posted to her Sina Weibo microblogging account. The post was quickly forwarded more than 100,000 times and received more than 60,000 comments.

A short time later, the sales of drones on, the largest online shopping website in China, saw a sharp climb. Sales of Wang's make and model of choice in particular skyrocketed, despite the steep cost of 7,000 yuan ($1,110).

Flight versatility

Thanks to Wang's use of creativity in his romantic endeavors, people have come to realize that drones can deliver much more than military hardware or security surveillance. Everyday citizens can use them in ways to enhance their own lives.

Two days prior to Wang's proposal, China's e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba Group, in cooperation with delivery company YTO Express, had just finished a small trial on the use of drones for its deliveries. In the test, tea ordered on from February 4 to 6 was delivered via drone from the suburbs of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province to their respective downtown areas, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Some 450 customers took part in the experiment. The drones delivered their purchases outside residential buildings, and then human couriers took over the final part of the delivery. The customers received the tea just one hour after placing the order--much quicker than the one day it normally takes for an intercity delivery.

Encouragingly, the part of the delivery requiring human couriers may soon be eliminated if five college students from Beijing Jiaotong University have anything to do with it.

Having won the gold medal in the Challenge Cup Beijing College Student Extracurricular Academic Science and Technology Works Competition in Beijing in June, the students' new smart system would enable the drones to stop outside of the recipient's window--within an arm length's distance--so customers could conveniently receive a package without ever leaving their homes.

"This will largely speed up deliveries, including those taking place in emergencies," said Dai Shenghua, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University. "Investors have already agreed to cooperate with us."

"It is so cool," said Hou Chuchu, an accountant working in Beijing. "Sometimes when I stay at home and don't want to cook or go out to eat, I want restaurants to be able to send me meals directly. Now it seems like that is going to soon be a reality with near-remote delivery."

However, Hou is a bit worried about privacy protections eliminated by the new technology. "The drones are normally equipped with cameras. I think they will be able to see through window glass," he said.

The need for better control

Privacy concerns are one worry, and safety is another. On September 22, a young man in Guangzhou who refused to give his name, inspired by Wang's well-publicized romantic proposal, wanted to deliver some coupons for mooncakes to his girlfriend via drone as a Mid-Autumn Festival gift.

But the drone was hit down to the ground on the way to its intended recipient by a group of older women dancing downstairs. The women then cracked the drone and shared the coupons among themselves.

The man asked the women to return the coupons and compensate for the drone, but the dancers refused. They argued, "What if this flying thing falls on our heads? You put us in a very compromising position!"

As colorful a picture as this story paints, it has highlighted a problem that has been lingering in the drone industry: Are the common use of drones a threat to the public?

After a series of drone accidents, the concern is well-founded. On June 6, a drone fell on a high-speed train track in Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province, due to strong wind, causing a delay of the train.

On July 1, another drone broke the windshield of a car in Futian District in Shenzhen, Guangdong.

On December 29, one almost crashed into an Airbus plane above the Beijing Capital International Airport. The drone passed within 15 meters of the plane's flight path.

While these accidents mostly caused property damage, some more serious drone accidents have resulted in the loss of life. In April 2014, an old man was hit by an unmanned aerial model while in the streets of Zhengzhou, Henan Province and died seven hours after being sent to hospital. Later investigations showed that the device's operator was responsible for his death.

"The drones are advertised as easy-to-use--a novice can supposedly learn how to control one after merely watching an instructional video," said Liang Xianyong, a drone developer from Guangzhou. "But what if they don't learn enough before operation?"

Liang revealed that he was once almost hurt by a drone he developed himself.

"The operation of drones needs to be regulated," said Zheng Xiangming, a professor at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Nanjing. "There are tens of thousands of drone enthusiasts, and that number is only going to continue to grow. We urgently need regulations and laws in this field and enhanced supervision on the industry."

The Civil Aviation Administration of China issued regulations in 2009, requiring the identification of drone operators during their application process to use such devices. Regulators are reportedly considering license requirements for drone operators.

YTO Express, despite the success of the delivery trial in February, revealed that it has no specific plans to promote drone-based delivery service on a larger scale. Management believes a lot of issues must first be addressed, including workforce training.

"The current regulations are still vague regarding the production of drones and qualification supervision over drone drivers in China," said Zhang Qihuai, a researcher with China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. "Professional training for drone drivers only started this July. It is estimated that we need 80,000 professional drone drivers in 2018, but now there are only 700 licensed drivers nationwide."

Costs and benefits

For the past two years, Gu Wei, a journalist with Contemporary Express, a Nanjing-based newspaper, has been using company-bought drones to take photographs for the news outlet. In June 2014, Gu used the drone to take panoramic snapshots of Xuanwu Lake in the city's downtown area. But he lost control of the drone, and it descended over the lake.

"The drone can usually be controlled within a 1-km radius, but the wind makes it more difficult," Gu said. "Normally, after being fully charged, the drone can fly for about 20 minutes. If it's about to run out of power, it will turn on a protection mode, which causes it to land slowly to avoid a possible accident. However, if it's in protection mode, the remote--and the person responsible--lose all control."

Gu ultimately had to take a dive to retrieve his drone, which was a meter under the lake. The plunge cost him 2,000 yuan ($314) in repairs.

For complaints about high repair fees, look no further than the website of Dajiang Innovation (DJI), a leading drone manufacturer based in Shenzhen. The trade volume of DJI exceeded 3 billion yuan ($471 million) in 2014, covering 70 percent of the global market. As such, it has become a forum for drone activists to vent about their concerns--financial and otherwise.

"A couple of years ago, it only cost a few hundred [yuan] to repair a drone, but now the same repair costs almost 2,000 yuan ($314) due to the growing market," complained Liu.

As some cities forbid the use of drones in certain areas, it causes a headache for drone practitioners to find an ideal place to practice.

"Drone flying is now forbidden within the Sixth Ring Road of Beijing, which means the whole city is a no-fly zone. It's hard for us to practice our skills," said Xie Hui, a drone operator in Beijing.

After checking for favorable weather conditions ahead of time, Xie and his teammates now have to drive outside of Beijing in order to practice. An avid photographer, Xie always shares the videos shot by his drone via WeChat, a popular social networking app. "When I feel discouraged, I watch my footage and think our efforts are worthwhile. I believe the future for drones is very promising, despite all of the existing problems now," he said.

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

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