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Alibaba begins drone delivery trial to keep up with Amazon and Google

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AmazonGoogle, and UPS are experimenting with delivering items by drone, but it's not just American companies that are trying to get items to their customers by unmanned aerial vehicle. China's Alibaba has begun a three-day drone delivery trial that sees the online retail giant using remote-controlled quadcopters to carry items to customers who live near distribution centers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

The vehicles are emblazoned with Alibaba's Taobao brand, a site that works like a combination of eBay and Amazon, and offers a range of food, clothing, and electrical products. During the trial, the drones will only deliver orders of a specific type of ginger tea, a restriction that BBC News says keeps the maximum weight of the packages to 340g (12oz). The 450 shoppers involved in the trial will also need to live within a one-hour flight of Alibaba's distribution centers in order to receive their goods.

The drones will only deliver a specific type of tea during the trial

The company's drone trial is the latest in a list of challenges to Western tech and retail giants like Google and Amazon, as Alibaba continues its push to globalize. Alibaba CEO Jack Ma said his company aimed to have 2 billion customers by 2025, and it has adopted some of the methods used by Western tech giants in order to reach that goal. Last month, the company announced it was making a movie with established director Wong Kar-wai, following a similar path to Amazon by creating exclusive entertainment content it could push on its platforms.

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An aspirational video published on Taobao's blog explains the company's drone delivery system, showing a woman making an order for the brand of ginger tea at home, before filling a kettle with water and placing it on the stove. By the time the water's boiled, Alibaba's drone has arrived, and her notable frown is turned upside down by the smell of the tea. The video shows a slick operation, but it's not clear whether Alibaba hopes to expand its drone delivery after the trial is over, or what kind of safety considerations it has made for flying around urban areas.

Should it plan to deliver more items by drone, it has hopefully cleared the flights with the relevant Chinese authorities, or it might end up with a frowny face of its own — BBC News reports that another drone delivery enterprise, set up by China's InCake bakery, was shut down by Shanghai authorities in 2013 for operating without a license.