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France is going to let drones start delivering the mail

It’s an experiment at first, but it’s happening.

Drone in Flight Bruce Bennett / Getty

The French postal service will soon start a new drone delivery program to carry parcels on a set nine-mile route following approval from the French aviation regulatory authority.

It’s just an experiment for now, not a fully launched program, and will only operate once a week. But it is the first time a federal postal service will use drones to deliver on a regular route.

The DPDgroup, a subsidiary of the French national postal service, has been perfecting its drone delivery project since 2014 in the south of France, working in partnership with Atechsys, a French drone company. In September 2015, the drone delivery project demonstrated its aircraft could fly in complete autonomy carrying a package weighing over three pounds a distance of nearly nine miles.

The drone route stretches between Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Beaume and Pourrières in the Provence region of France in the southeast of the country. For now, non-residential customers are participating in the experiment, including a dozen tech companies that can now receive parcels by drone, according to a statement from DPDgroup.

Eventually, Le Groupe La Poste, the name of the French postal service, hopes to use drones to deliver parcels in hard to reach rural or mountainous regions, where last-mile delivery is difficult and expensive by ground vehicle.

The drones used in the French postal experiment are capable of flying as far as 12 miles carrying a payload of about two pounds at a maximum speed of about 19 miles per hour and are equipped with a parachute to land safely in case of a disruption with the flight.

The U.K.’s national postal service, the Royal Mail, expressed interest in deploying drones last year amid warnings that rural postal services in the country may be under threat due to the high delivery costs of reaching remote areas.

The U.S. Postal Service has been looking into drones, too. In October, USPS released the results of a survey gauging how Americans feel about the idea of drones carrying parcels to American doorsteps, showing more Americans like the idea of drone delivery than dislike it.

Last Tuesday, Amazon released a video of its first customer drone delivery in the British countryside. And in China, online retailer started the trial of its drone delivery program in November with a fleet of 30 drones that ferry orders to locations in rural China outside of Beijing, as well as Jiangsu, Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces, according to the South China Morning Post.

While one-off drone delivery trials in the U.S. have happened this year, a nationwide program is unlikely to come to fruition until 2020, after the Federal Aviation Administaion and the Department of Transportation craft new drone laws and finalize a method for integrating unmanned aircraft with the national air traffic control system.

Recode reached out to DPDgroup for additional clarifications about the drone program, but did not immediately hear back.

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