The southern Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen is leading the nation in a number of initiatives to develop what it calls “low-altitude airspace economy.”
As China’s low-altitude airspace opens up, Shenzhen has set its sights on parlaying its strengths in drones to spur growth and create jobs.
According to official statistics released by Shenzhen authorities, the city now counts more than 1,300 drone producers.
It is home to giants such as DJI (大疆创新) and startups including Phoenix Wings (丰翼科技), an affiliate of logistics titan SF Express. It builds aerial vehicles and operates freight services.
Shenzhen’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry generated 75 billion yuan (US$11 billion) in revenue last year alone, making up almost 70% of the country’s total.
Additionally, Shenzhen-built consumer-grade drones take a 70% global market share.
The Chinese answer to Silicon Valley has effectively established itself as a centerpiece of the country’s and even the world’s UAV scene, with a complete industrial chain of its own.
As the sector steadily evolves, it generates a growing list of use cases, most notably drone-powered delivery of takeaway meals.
Late last year, Meituan, one of the country’s two largest on-demand local services providers, deployed its drone fleet on a trial run to five business districts within Shenzhen.
The drones flew along routes covering 18 residential communities and office buildings, fulfilling more than 120,000 takeaway orders.
Meanwhile, Phoenix Wings (丰翼科技) has constructed a low-altitude airspace logistics network extending across the entire city.
In the first three months of this year, the firm quickly monetized its technologies, sending some 130,000 packages over the course of an aggregate 1,800 commercial flights.
In addition to these applications, Shenzhen has actively promoted the use of drones for aerial inspection, emergency rescue and transferring of objects or personnel.
As of last year, the city had opened a total of 83 pathways for drones, and sent them up in the air 300,000 times to perform various tasks for public transportation, logistics, tourism and Smart City domains.
Market analysts have pointed out that with China’s drive to reform its low-altitude airspace management and the onset of technological innovations, this space might become an important growth driver, contributing to a market worth trillions of yuan.
During a recent survey of local politicians, business people and industrial experts, many have proffered suggestions for the industry to move forward.
A bigger role for the government
“In response to complex urban scenarios, the safe operation of drones must rely on the provision of a suite of flight services, including 3D high-precision map, meteorological data, communication navigation and other public infrastructure,” said Mao Yinian, who is in charge of Meituan’s drone business.
He added that currently all the above-mentioned issues are left to businesses to tackle by themselves, leading to efficiency losses and overlapping investment. Mao thus called for the government to step in.
His view was echoed by Li Shipeng, an expert with the International Digital Economy Academy, a Shenzhen-based think tank dedicated to the research on the Greater Bay Area.
Li also urged the government to provide the infrastructure needed to develop the “low-altitude airspace economy,” so as to free drone manufacturers from the burden of charting flight paths or devising the protocol themselves.
This not just will reduces the amount of overlapped financing but also is conducive to the formulation of uniform industry standards, said Li.
Media revealed that this year Shenzhen’s lawmakers will deliberate a bill on tapping the economic opportunities of opening up Shenzhen’s low-altitude airspace. If given the go-ahead, it will be the first law of its kind in China.