Future Tense

Alibaba’s Teabag Stunt Doesn’t Prove That Drone Delivery Works

Founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma. 

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

A few months ago, the indie rock band OK Go made news when it used a small drone to shoot a music video for its song “I Won’t Let You Down.” Then, in January, the band performed a pro-drone promotional concert. However, an announcement late Tuesday by the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba that it would test a drone delivery service put me in mind of an earlier OK Go video in which a falling stack of dominoes, acting through intermediaries, covers the band in spray paint.

Like OK Go’s Rube Goldberg device, the Alibaba “delivery test” makes simple things complicated for entertainment value. Bloomberg reports, “A deliveryman will await the parcel’s arrival on the ground floor and carry it to [sic] customer.” (Promises of drones’ efficiency are rather undermined if a messenger has to loiter until the device shows up.)

What will the drone be delivering?

Little bags of ginger tea, from a warehouse on Beijing’s periphery to the China World Trade Center, a landmark skyscraper in the central business district. There are, conservatively, thousands of places between the China World Trade Center and the warehouse at which a thirsty consumer might acquire a ginger-tea bag. (Or the loitering messenger could bring a few along.) As Forbes reports, the drones Alibaba is using have a 2.2-pound payload capacity, and a 6.2-mile range. They will also fly in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

One might see this development, as Fortune does, as moving “Alibaba ahead of international rival Amazon.com in the race for ever-more improbable delivery options.” This is silly. Delivering 450 teabags with drones, while a courier waits at the destination to take the tea bags upstairs, does nothing to show that delivering packages via drone is an economically viable proposition.

The payload capacities are small and the range limited. Basic physics means these facts will not soon change. The regulatory hurdles, which Chinese aviation authorities appear to have set aside for the tea-bag flights, remain substantial.

The most notable use of drones for package delivery to date was a U.S. Marine Corps program in Afghanistan that flew 2 K-MAX unmanned helicopters. Though the K-MAX was praised by military representatives, it didn’t revolutionize cargo delivery the way Predator and Reaper drones have revolutionized surveillance and targeted killing.

The logistics of a supply chain—whether in a military context or in a civilian one—are complex. Adding a drone as a link in the chain might make the chain appear more modern, but it will not be cost-effective or safe for some time. The Alibaba tea-bag experiment, like Jeff Bezos’ announcement in late 2013 that Amazon would be ready to deliver packages by drone sometime this year, is a publicity stunt that doesn’t change these basic facts.