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China tech

JD.com rolls out fleet of AI-equipped delivery robots

Chinese e-commerce giant battles logistics logjams on land and in the air

JD.com's autonomous, AI-equipped delivery robot features 22 compartments for packages.   © Getty Images

SHANGHAI -- China's second-largest e-commerce company, JD.com, introduced in November an artificial intelligence-equipped rolling robot that can deliver goods up to 5 km from its base.

The autonomous home-delivery vehicle, which can be unlocked using face authentication, is helping JD cope with rising labor shortages and skyrocketing wages in the China's logistics industry.

This follows what the company claims was the first drone transport of Shanghai hairy crabs in September.

The initial fleet of 20 robots was released by JD's logistics base in Changsha, Hunan Province, at the end of November. In addition to AI, the four-wheeled robot -- about the size of a small golf cart -- is equipped with cameras and sensors, and travels at up to 20 kph while avoiding obstacles, skirting traffic jams, and obeying road signals.

Each robot has 22 compartments, which customers unlock using a password or face authentication. If a customer fails to remove their item within a specified time, delivery is rescheduled and the robot moves on to its next destination.

The Changsha base can handle up to 2,000 parcels per day and monitors all robot deliveries in real-time via a computer system.

JD has introduced cutting-edge technologies into its roughly 500 distribution bases, where robots sort packages and perform other tasks. In Shanghai alone, JD delivers on average about 150,000 parcels daily, according to company officials.

In addition to automated warehouses, JD is stepping up development of other unmanned delivery systems. In September, the company began what it claims was the first transport of Shanghai hairy crabs by drone. It can now fly them as far as 10 km in about three minutes. JD officials claim the new service has fueled demand for the crabs, as it can maintain freshness better than land deliveries.

Officials at JD.com claim the company made the first-ever drone transport of Shanghai hairy crabs in September. (Photo courtesy of JD.com)

Alibaba Group Holding, JD's bigger rival, is also pushing more automation. Chairman Jack Ma Yun said Alibaba will invest at least 100 billion yuan ($14.49 billion) to reinforce its logistics operations. The group's logistics subsidiary, Cainiao, is already speeding development of unmanned warehouses and AI-equipped robots.

As China's online marketplace continues to grow, delivery motorcycles are flooding urban areas to satisfy shoppers' demand for timely shipment. Most e-commerce companies try to deliver within 24 hours, while some promise 30-minute service for certain items.

This has put increasing strain on drivers, who work on commission and are often seen hurtling recklessly about as they try to fill orders. In addition, the shortage of drivers has sent wages soaring and even given birth to a new jobs service, which places drivers from rural areas with urban delivery companies.

But there may be problems down the road. A bicycle-share company that grew rapidly eventually went under due to overexpansion. The same could happen to delivery services if they take on too many motorcycle drivers.

Many delivery services raise rates to cope with increased demand during peak shopping seasons. If this trend continues, there could be a backlash from online shoppers, forcing robots and AI to the forefront of the logistics industry more quickly.

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