Media reported recently that the southern Chinese tech hub Shenzhen had begun drone delivery of takeaway orders on a trial basis starting February 23.
The news came as Meituan (美团, HK: 3690), one of China’s largest food delivery platforms, announced the same day that it had secured the approval from civil aviation authorities to conduct commercial drone delivery services.
Meituan is also the first company to land a permit to deliver meals by drone in a densely populated area of Shenzhen, marking the internet giant’s foray into urban air freight business.
It’s unclear if Meituan’s rival, Alibaba-owned ele.me (饿了么), will follow suit and branch out into drone delivery of takeout orders.
According to media reports, Meituan’s drones are allowed to fly below 120 meters in Shenzhen. At this altitude, its self-developed dispatch system can autonomously manage delivery orders within a 600-km radius.
Meituan also will deploy an on-site team to ensure smooth operation of the dispatch system and its drone fleet, as well as to respond to emergencies.
Work on screening Meituan drones’ airworthiness got underway as early as early 2021, according to Yang Junwei, a Meituan manager overseeing its drone operation.
From then on, Yang’s team had completed the initial R&D work on the drone, autonomous airstrip and intelligent dispatch system, he said.
He added more than 90% of these devices’ components were developed in-house, and Meituan’s drone unit had fulfilled 120,000 drone-enabled delivery orders under regulatory scrutiny before taking the move to commercialize the business.
To date, the average order fulfillment via drones lasts 12 minutes, down 60% from the 30 minutes under the traditional mode of transportation powered by delivery riders.
As of last year, Meituan’s drone fleet had been applied in five business districts of Shenzhen during a trial run, covering 18 residential communities and office buildings and providing takeaway services to around 20,000 households.
The drones delivered more than 20,000 items including meals, cosmetics, FMCG goods, groceries and consumer electronics.