Alibaba deploys drones to deliver tea in China
Echoing US online retailer Amazon, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba on Wednesday tested a drone delivery service, promising to whisk ginger tea to customers within an hour despite close controls on airspace.
Alibaba's flagship consumer-to-consumer platform Taobao, estimated to hold more than 90 percent of the Chinese market, showed off a photo of a black and silver drone with helicopter-like propellors 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.
The drone launch comes after Alibaba 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 Taobao.
A survey published late January by the State Administration for Industry & Commerce (SAIC) showed only about a third of products sampled from Taobao were genuine.
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.
© 2015 AFP