Food delivery by drone is just part of daily life in Shenzhen

Workflow is a combination of human labor and automated labor. After the drone delivery system receives an order (customers place specific items marked for delivery by drone in the company’s app), a runner ( people) would go to restaurants, all a few flights from the mall, to take the order and bring it to the launch pad. Runners put food and drinks into a standard cardboard box, weigh it to make sure it’s not too heavy, seal the box, and hand it over to another worker who specializes in drone handling. The second worker places the box under the drone and waits for it to lock in.

Mao Yinian, director of drone delivery services at Meituan, said everything after that was highly automated. The drone’s movements are controlled by a central algorithm and predefined routes. “You can know in advance, to the exact second, the position of each drone and its speed, so customers can expect arrival times with an offset of two seconds, instead of three minutes. or even 10 minutes (when it comes to traditional delivery), he told MIT Technology Review.

The company has a centralized control room in Shenzhen, where employees can control the drone in case of an emergency. There are now more than a hundred drones that can be deployed for city deliveries. On average, an operator is tracking 10 drones at a time.

Mao said that not all human labor can or should be replaced by machines. But the company plans to further automate the delivery process. For example, Mao would like to see robots take over the job of loading packages onto drones and changing batteries: “Our ground staff may have to bend down hundreds of times a day to load packages and change batteries. the battery. The human body is not designed for such movements.”

“Our vision is to transform [launchpad] into a fully automated factory assembly line,” he said. “The only human job is to put substandard food and drinks in standard packaging, and then there is no more work for humans.”

Regulatory and economic constraints

Jonathan Roberts, a professor of robotics at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, who has been studying drones since 1999, said today there are few technical obstacles to food delivery. and package by drone. it makes a bit of a financial sense,” he said.

Regulations often determine where companies choose to set up shop. In 2002, Australia was the first country in the world to introduce a law on unmanned aerial vehicles, because of the technique called drones. The law allows universities and companies to conduct drone experiments as long as they have official permits. “Therefore [Australia] Roberts said it was the ideal place to conduct the experiment. That’s why Alphabet’s Wing has been testing and rolling out drone deliveries in Australia before trying them out in any other country.

It is a similar story for Meituan and the city of Shenzhen, where the city government has a robust and particularly industry-friendly drone manufacturing supply chain. At the national policy level, the central government has also allowed Shenzhen, one of the country’s designated Special Economic Zones, to be more flexible when it comes to commercial drone laws.


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