I found that the reality of drone delivery is still far from ideal, and people may be turned away by the steep learning curve. But at the same time, it was an exciting experience—the prospect of routine drone delivery feels more realistic than it’s ever been.
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.
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.
Here began my first attempt. After looking up all Meituan pickup locations on the map, I chose one near the subway station I was at. I ordered an iced coconut tea latte, which was specifically marked in the app as being deliverable by a drone. I paid and began waiting in excitement.
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.
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.