Meituan's Drones are soaring in Revolutionizing the Delivery Service in China's Bustling Metropolis
In the bustling metropolitan lifestyle of Shenzhen, drones flying around delivering food is no longer a novelty to its residents and vendors. The drones that fly among the towers of Shenzhen's commercial areas can fulfill requests for everything from cold beverages and warm meals to everyday essentials in under 30 minutes. This drone delivery service is operated by Meituan, one of China’s largest internet companies, which has flown 19,000 meals to 8,000 customers across Shenzhen, a city with close to 20 million people in over two years.
The company hired roughly six million gig workers in 2022 to fulfill billions of orders. But the company has also been working on drone delivery technology since 2017. Besides, Meituan has been regularly carrying out such deliveries for many months in Shenzhen, a city in southern China that is home to an established drone supply chain.
Drone delivery has captured the interest of numerous large corporations. Starting with Amazon, it first put forth the service in 2013, but its development has been constrained by rules and a dearth of demand. More successfully, Google parent firm Alphabet's Wing does drone deliveries across three continents. Additionally, Walmart is funding a number of start-ups that use drones to transport products.
Meituan has opted to offer drone delivery in what may be the most difficult environment, namely dense urban neighborhoods, setting it apart from these International competitors.
Not a Doorstep Delivery Approach but…
In China, where the majority of people reside in densely populated high-rise residential complexes and many of them often order meal delivery, this strategy makes sense.
Meituan does not have drones delivered directly to your doorstep for the service to function in a crowded city. Instead, the business has installed pickup kiosks near homes or offices. Deliveries are dropped off by drones to the kiosks, which can accommodate multiple packages at once. Customers may find the process less convenient, but it enables each drone to fly a pre-planned path from one launchpad to one kiosk, greatly simplifying the navigation of metropolitan areas.
Manpower is Essential
Meituan's delivery drones still require a significant amount of labor at this time. Both human and automated labor is used in the workflow. For instance, order a milk tea. When the beverage is prepared, Meituan's backend dispatch system designates a human courier to pick it up from the mall vendor and transport it to the complex's roof, where the business has installed drone takeoff pads.
An inspector examines the security of the drink box before takeoff. The flyer then departs when Meituan's navigation system determines the quickest and safest route to take to get to the pickup kiosk.
Of course, it has yet to be demonstrated whether deploying drones to transport food is economically feasible. According to reports, each of Meituan's drones, which are made of carbon fiber and weigh about four kilos, can carry about 2.5 kilograms of food, or about the weight of a typical supper for two people. If a customer only wants one cup of milk tea, the extra room is wasted. During peak hours, Meituan is relying on consumers to quickly grab their meals as each kiosk can only keep about 28 orders.
There is also the issue of the new delivery boxes producing waste. The recycling bins have been placed next to the kiosks, according to Meituan, however customers are also welcome to keep the containers.
Meituan doesn't intend to completely replace the millions of couriers it employs in China with unmanned flyers, but automation would help relieve some of the pressure on its already overwhelmed delivery platform. Both consumers and the government have criticized its dispatch algorithms for reportedly prioritizing financial efficiency over rider safety. Labor-intensive companies have already turned to robot assistance as a result of the difficulty in finding workers. Meituan wants to find the ideal environment for collaborative human-robot work.
Learning from International Competitors
According to reports, the Federal Aviation Administration's research on low-altitude aerial mobility led China's civil aviation authorities to begin following the US between 2017 and 2018. Soon after, the Chinese government started developing guidelines and regulations for this new industry. Meituan has also researched the routes used by its American drone competitors, but it is aware that there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer since the population densities and consumer habits of the two nations differ significantly.
In December 2022, the Chinese internet behemoth backed by Tencent, reached the milestone of delivering 100,000 drone-flown food orders. In China's Guangdong province, the company claims to have served 20,000 customers in the commercial center of Shenzhen city alone. It is poised to revolutionize meal delivery services in China.
Enabling Convenience in Congestion
In 2017, Meituan started looking into the use of a UAV delivery service to enhance the effectiveness and experience of urban rapid delivery. For the building of a low-altitude intelligent logistics network in cities, Meituan built drones, automated airports, intelligent dispatch systems, and other components. More than 90 percent of the elements were self-made, achieving the localization of essential technologies.
By combining ground and air transportation, the low-altitude logistics network seeks to offer more convenient delivery services in urban areas. This network meets more emergency user needs, enhances the current service experience, and makes delivery more convenient in a variety of urban settings by leveraging Meituan's strengths in scene selection, technology, and operations.
Beginning of Commercial Operations
This year, the Meituan UAV team revealed that the Civil Aviation Administration of China has accepted its urban low-altitude logistics solution on a trial basis. As a result, Meituan can now begin the commercial operation of its drone deliveries.
The Meituan UAV Shenzhen Operations Management Center is a system of Meituan's urban low-altitude logistics solution. Within a 600-kilometer radius of the operation center, Meituan's in-house created technology can independently execute the order route scheduling task. The center's staff will oversee the system's regular operation, manage UAVs, and deal with emergencies.
There needs to be more development until Meituan's drone delivery is flawless because there aren't many suppliers and only a handful of kiosks in Shenzhen. In three to five years, the city should have a considerably wider availability of the service, according to the administration.