I ordered a bubble tea by drone in Shenzhen

I find that the reality of drone delivery is still far from ideal and people can turn away from the steep learning curve. But at the same time, it’s a fun experience—the prospect of regular drone deliveries feels more real than ever.

Meituan currently operates more than a hundred drones from five delivery hubs (or launch pads) in the city. Together, they’ve completed more than 100,000 orders by 2022. While the platform itself can essentially deliver anything from dinner to medicine, fresh flowers to electronics, planes can’t. riders are mainly used to deliver food and drinks.

Why? Because the Chinese care about the temperature of their meals, Mao Yinian, Meituan’s head of drone delivery, told me. “People are very interested in that—whether they can get a hot meal or a cup of iced milk tea at the right time. But when it comes to other [types of products], people don’t mind if it comes 30 minutes faster or slower,” he said. Since Meituan’s drone routes are all automated—and the drones never get stuck in traffic—precise control of the time it takes for meals to be delivered is easy than. Drones usually arrive within seconds of 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 subscribe to me. But when I tried it, I discovered it’s not as simple as it seems.

First hurdle: drones don’t deliver to your doorstep. Instead, they deliver to one of dozens of pick-up locations scattered across the city—vending machine-sized kiosks that function as both a drone landing site and a parking space. Store your package if you are late to receive it.

A yellow and white Meituan pickup kiosk in front of the trees.  A man was standing nearby.
A Meituan stall at the entrance to the residential area.


My first attempt started here. After looking up all the Meituan pick-up locations on the map, I chose one near the subway station I was in. I ordered an iced coconut tea latte, specifically marked in the app as deliveryable by drone. I paid and started waiting in excitement.

Are not. I immediately received a message stating that “due to a system upgrade,” my order would be delivered by a courier instead. Is it because of the bad weather? There was 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 are working.

Turns out, she told me, I had ordered from a restaurant in a different district, and there was no drone route flying from there to the kiosk where I wanted to send my order. She said there is no way to know that from the app.


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