Flying High - The Rise of Delivery Drones in China

Category Technology

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Meituan's delivery drones have been in operation in Shenzhen since 2022, providing meal and drink delivery to customers who have ordered from the app. The drones can fly with precise timing and accuracy thanks to automated flight systems. Although the drones have limitations, such as flight time and distance, they are a convenient way for customers to receive their orders on time.

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Last week, I told you about my adventure at Tencent’s customer service center. But the quest to get my QQ account back wasn’t the only reason I went to Shenzhen. While I was in China, I learned that the dominant Chinese food delivery platform, Meituan, has been flying delivery drones in the city for more than a year now, and I wanted to check it out myself.

Meituan currently operates more than a hundred drones from five delivery hubs (or launchpads) in the city. Together, they completed over 100,000 orders in 2022. While the platform itself can deliver basically anything, from dinner to medicine to fresh flowers to electronic devices, the drones are mostly used for food and drinks.Why? Because Chinese people care about the temperature of their meals, Mao Yinian, head of Meituan’s drone delivery department, tells me. "People care about it greatly—whether they can receive a hot meal or a cup of iced bubble tea in time. But when it comes to other [types of products], people don’t mind if it arrives 30 minutes faster or slower," he says. Since Meituan’s drone flight routes are all automated—and the drones never run into traffic—it’s easier to precisely control the time it takes for the meal to be delivered. The drones usually arrive within seconds of the estimated time.

Meituan has grown from catering only food takeaway to providing medical prescription delivery in China since starting in 2010

To have a cup of bubble tea delivered exactly when you want it? As a bubble tea enthusiast, all I can say is sign me up. But when I tried it out, I found out it’s not as simple as it sounds.The first obstacle: the drones don’t deliver to your doorstep. Instead, they deliver to one of a dozen pickup locations scattered around the city—vending-machine-size kiosks that function as both a landing pad for the drone and storage for your package if you’re late to pick it up.

In 2021, Meituan delivered healthcare supplies to workers in Hubei province during the Covid-19 outbreak

A Meituan pickup kiosk at the entrance of a residential neighborhood.ZEYI YANG .

Nope. I immediately got a text telling me that "because of a system upgrade," my order would be delivered by a human courier instead. Was it because of the bad weather? There had been a rainstorm in Shenzhen that morning, and the sky was still covered with dark clouds. But when I checked with a representative at Meituan, she said the drones were working.

Meituan’s delivery drones can carry up to 5kgs, fly at a maximum speed of 40km/hr and operate up to a maximum radius of 10km

It turns out, she told me, I had ordered from a restaurant in a different district, and there were no drone routes that flew from there to the kiosk I wanted to send my order to. There’s no way to know that from the app, she said.

I ordered an avocado strawberry yogurt smoothie and again received a text immediately after the purchase was made. "Drone deliveries are not operational at this time of the day. It will be delivered by a human courier instead," I was told. I later learned that drones only deliver until 7 p.m. every day. I was 30 minutes too late.

Deliveries are automated using an automated flight system programmed into the drone and packages are scanned throughout the process

It wasn’t a promising start. But as it happened, I had arranged to visit one of the company’s drone launchpads the next day. So I got the chance to take an inside look at the operation.

One meituan worker is sealing the package.ZEYI YANG .

The rooftop launchpad.ZEYI YANG .

This launchpad services three nearby pickup kiosks. The rooftop area is divided into three zones, each with its own huge QR codes panted on the ground. That’s how the drone identifies where to take off and land, while avoiding each other in the process.

Meituan also partnered with JD to create a joint drone delivery initiative to processes orders further and faster

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