Drone Delivery: A Closer Look at Meituan's Urban Solutions

Category Technology

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Meituan, a Chinese grocery delivery service, is the first to deliver in urban areas by drones, using automated and human labor to transport orders. Meituan has already made more than 100,000 drone deliveries in Shenzhen and continues to show that regular drone delivery in cities is possible. Through human and drone operators, high-resolution cameras, infrared sensors, and programmed mapping information, Meituan ensures that their drones are able to navigate densely populated cities with ease.

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My iced tea arrived from the sky.

In a buzzy urban area in Shenzhen, China, sandwiched between several skyscrapers, I watched as a yellow-and-black drone descended onto a pickup kiosk by the street. The top of the vending-machine-size kiosk opened up for the drone to land, and a white cardboard box containing my drink was placed inside. When I had made the delivery order on my phone half an hour before, the app noted that it would arrive by drone at 2:03 p.m., and that was exactly when it came.

Meituan is the first company to introduce drone delivery to urban areas in China

What differentiates Meituan from these American peers is that it has chosen to offer drone delivery in what is potentially the most challenging environment: dense urban neighborhoods. It’s an approach that makes sense in China, where most people live in high-rise apartment buildings in populous cities, and many of them order food delivery on a daily basis.

To make the service work in a dense city, Meituan doesn’t have the drones deliver directly to your doorstep. Instead, the company has set up pickup kiosks close to residential or office buildings. Drones drop off deliveries at the kiosks, which can hold several packages at once. The process may be less convenient for customers, but it allows every drone to fly a predetermined route, from one launchpad to one kiosk, making the task of navigating urban areas much easier.

Since their launch in 2022, Meituan has made over 100,000 drone deliveries in Shenzhen

In 2022, Meituan made more than 100,000 drone deliveries in Shenzhen. My own experience wasn’t seamless. The first time I tried to use the service, I accidentally ordered from a restaurant that was too far away. My second attempt failed because I had unwittingly ordered after hours (the drones go to bed at 7 p.m.).

But for some Shenzhen residents and vendors, delivery by drone is no longer a novelty—it’s just part of their daily routine. Meituan’s progress shows that regular drone delivery in cities is possible, even though it requires making some compromises when it comes to user experience. How does the magic happen? I visited one of the company’s drone launchpads to see how it’s done.

Meituan's drones fly predetermined routes from launchpad to kiosk, navigating densely populated cities with ease

The rooftop "airport" .

Meituan launches its drones in Shenzhen from five delivery hubs. My tea actually came from one that was only a few hundred feet away, on the rooftop of a gigantic shopping mall. There, the building’s rooftop has been turned into an airport for the drones and a handful of support staff.

When I visited in April, there were about 10 drones parked on the rooftop, and two or three either taking off or landing. I had just missed the lunch peak, I was told by a Meituan employee, and the drones and humans there were mostly resting and recharging in anticipation of the dinner peak.

Their system relies on a mix of automated and human labor to transport orders from restaurants to delivery sites

The workflow is a mix of human and automated labor. Once the drone delivery system gets an order (customers order specific items marked for drone delivery in the company’s app), a runner (human) goes to the restaurants, all located a few flights down in the shopping mall, to pick up the order and brings it to the launchpad. The runner places the food and drinks in a standardized cardboard box, weighs it to make sure it’s not too heavy, seals the box, and hands it off to a different worker who specializes in dealing with the drones.

The drone delivery service is limited to supporting light goods like food and drinks up to 1kg in weight

The drone-loading specialist then inspects each order and checks it off against a list of drone deliveries. While they print out a slip and attach it to the package, a technician loads the box onto an available drone back at the launchpad. The technician uses a special transport box with RFID tags that help the drone remember where it needs to go.

The road to automation .

Meituan makes sure that the drones it uses are propeller-powered and capable of carrying light goods like food and drinks up to 1kg in weight. Those limits were set by the Chinese government, which allows for similar delivery operations by traditional aircraft as long as they fly over rural or unpopulated areas.

Other companies such as Amazon and FedEx have also experimented with drone delivery in urban areas

Once the drone leaves the rooftop, a member of the support staff take control of its path by logging into a tablet app developed by Meituan. But the actual navigation and landing is mostly automated. Through high-resolution cameras, infrared sensors, and programmed mapping information, the drone can make its way to the pickup kiosk and adjust itself according to its surroundings.

Real-time monitoring .

One important factor when dealing with unmanned aerial vehicles is making sure they always follow the rules. During my visit, Meituan staff were monitoring the drones’ progress on multiple monitors inside the launchpad. The company uses technology that lets operators trace the drones’ position, flight speed, and operating conditions in real-time. It logs data such as battery temperature and remaining flight time, and also records each delivery with photos and videos.

To ensure safety and compliance, the drone delivery system is designed so that it can’t fly beyond set boundaries. It follows designated no-fly zones and relies on approaches like virtual fences that automatically force drones away from dangerous areas and trigger emergency landings when necessary.

The future of urban delivery .

Meituan is not the only company introducing drones for urban delivery. Amazon and FedEx have both launched their own tests of drone-based delivery services in congested areas. But for now, the technology is still far too expensive to unlock mass adoption in cities.

Meituan, however, emphasizes the potential of setting up a system that can keep up with the needs of its customers. It believes that frequent deliveries and specially-designed lightweight drones can eventually bring down costs, making drone delivery an affordable option in urban centers. For the time being, the technology seems best suited for dense residential and commercial zones, where orders are plentiful and transportation alternatives remain limited.

It’s incredible to think that what was once only possible while flying over open fields has now arrived at our doorsteps in cities around the world. We may not see the drones coming, but they’re a familiar sight for many urban dwellers. And that’s the beauty of it—the drones are no longer a spectacle, and Meituan’s delivery system has become seamlessly integrated in everyday life.

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