Four years ago on 60 Minutes, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled what to many looked like a publicity stunt: using automated drones to deliver packages. “We’re talking about delivery,” he told interviewer Charlie Rose. “There’s an item going into the vehicle. I know this looks like science fiction. It’s not.”

Charlie Rose: What’s the hardest challenge in making this happen?

Jeff Bezos: The hard part here is putting in all the redundancy, all the reliability, all the systems you need to say, ‘Look, this thing can’t land on somebody’s head while they’re walking around their neighborhood’…

Charlie Rose: Yeah, that’s not good.

Jeff Bezos: That’s not good.

Jeff Bezos: And, you know, I don’t want anybody to think this is just around the corner. This is years of additional work from this point. But this is…

Charlie Rose: But will ‘years’ mean five, 10?

Jeff Bezos: I think, I, I am, I’m an optimist Charlie. I know it can’t be before 2015, because that’s the earliest we could get the rules from the FAA. My guess is that’s, that’s probably a little optimistic. But could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.

Four, five years later, and we’re still inching toward that possibility. But while Amazon navigates a range of legal issues, FAA regulations and patent requirements — so far it has only tested its program in the UK — the logistics company SF Express, founded in Guangdong province in 1993, has been given the green light to begin drone deliveries beginning now, in five villages and towns in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Of course it’s just a trial phase and the range of these deliveries are limited to the countryside, but it sounds like the company has plans for the future. “Drones are expected to come into their own in remote areas where conventional means of delivery struggle,” reports Shanghai-based The Paper (via ecns.cn):

“Drone delivery services can improve efficiency, as they won’t be bothered by difficult terrain and traffic congestion. On the other hand, it shows a major technological breakthrough in energy-saving, by doing away with vehicle depreciation, road tolls and fuel costs,” SF express investor and expert Zhao Xiaomin, told The Paper.

Drones weighing less than 7 kg (15.4 lbs) are currently allowed in China; anything larger requires a license from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, according to UAV Systems International.

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