I ordered a bubble tea by drone in Shenzhen


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Final week, I instructed you about my journey at Tencent’s customer support heart. However the quest to get my QQ account again wasn’t the one purpose I went to Shenzhen. Whereas I used to be in China, I discovered that the dominant Chinese language meals supply platform, Meituan, has been flying supply drones within the metropolis for greater than a yr now, and I wished to test it out myself.

I discovered that the truth of drone supply continues to be removed from supreme, and other people could also be turned away by the steep studying curve. However on the similar time, it was an thrilling expertise—the prospect of routine drone supply feels extra sensible than it’s ever been.

Meituan at present operates greater than 100 drones from 5 supply hubs (or launchpads) within the metropolis. Collectively, they accomplished over 100,000 orders in 2022. Whereas the platform itself can ship mainly something, from dinner to medication to recent flowers to digital units, the drones are largely used for meals and drinks. 

Why? As a result of Chinese language individuals care concerning the temperature of their meals, Mao Yinian, head of Meituan’s drone supply division, tells me. “Individuals care about it significantly—whether or not they can obtain a sizzling meal or a cup of iced bubble tea in time. However with regards to different [types of products], individuals don’t thoughts if it arrives half-hour sooner or slower,” he says. Since Meituan’s drone flight routes are all automated—and the drones by no means run into visitors—it’s simpler to exactly management the time it takes for the meal to be delivered. The drones often arrive inside seconds of the estimated time.

To have a cup of bubble tea delivered precisely while you need it? As a bubble tea fanatic, all I can say is signal me up. However after I tried it out, I discovered it’s not so simple as it sounds.

The primary impediment: the drones don’t ship to the doorstep. As an alternative, they ship to one in every of a dozen pickup places scattered across the metropolis—vending-machine-size kiosks that perform as each a touchdown pad for the drone and storage on your package deal for those who’re late to select it up. 

A yellow-and-white Meituan pickup kiosk in front of trees. A man is standing nearby.
A Meituan pickup kiosk on the entrance of a residential neighborhood.

Right here started my first try. After wanting up all Meituan pickup places on the map, I selected one close to the subway station I used to be at. I ordered an iced coconut tea latte, which was particularly marked within the app as being deliverable by a drone. I paid and started ready in pleasure.

Nope. I instantly acquired a textual content telling me that “due to a system improve,” my order can be delivered by a human courier as a substitute. Was it due to the dangerous climate? There had been a rainstorm in Shenzhen that morning, and the sky was nonetheless lined with darkish clouds. However after I checked with a consultant at Meituan, she mentioned the drones had been working. 

It seems, she instructed me, I had ordered from a restaurant in a unique district, and there have been no drone routes that flew from there to the kiosk I wished to ship my order to. There’s no approach to know that from the app, she mentioned. 

That night, I attempted it a second time. As directed, this time I selected a pickup kiosk in the identical district because the restaurant. The truth is, they had been only some hundred ft aside. That might certainly work, proper? 

I ordered an avocado strawberry yogurt smoothie and once more acquired a textual content instantly after the acquisition was made. “Drone deliveries are usually not operational right now of the day. Will probably be delivered by a human courier as a substitute,” I used to be instructed. I later discovered that drones solely ship till 7 p.m. daily. I used to be half-hour too late.

It wasn’t a promising begin. However because it occurred, I had organized to go to one of many firm’s drone launchpads the following day. So I acquired the prospect to take an inside have a look at the operation.

The launchpad sits on the rooftop of a five-floor mall. I visited simply after the lunch rush, met with some Meituan workers, and noticed that people and robots are equally vital in making each supply doable. I had puzzled whether or not drones had been deployed to every restaurant to select up the meals. No—Meituan staff decide up meals from the distributors, convey it to the rooftop to package deal it, and cargo it onto the drones. Staff additionally want to alter the drones’ batteries.

A woman in a white shirt is handling a white cardboard box where she will put the customer's order in.
One meituan employee is sealing the package deal.
Four drones parked on the rooftop.
The rooftop launchpad.

This launchpad providers three close by pickup kiosks. The rooftop space is split into three zones, every with its personal big QR codes painted on the ground to mark the precise touchdown positions for the drones. 

As soon as I discovered concerning the logistics concerned, it was clear Meituan had made some compromises with a purpose to make drone supply work in densely populated areas. Preparations like making the drones ship to pickup kiosks as a substitute of straight to your house could also be much less handy for purchasers, however it additionally reduces the danger that drones will get trapped in troublesome places or injure individuals. It’s a mannequin for different firms engaged on drone supply, and you may learn extra about what I discovered in a narrative on Meituan’s efforts I printed this morning.

Once I left the launchpad, I made one final order, from that very website to one of many three kiosks it serves. I felt assured that I’d discovered the whole lot I may concerning the service. Standing by the kiosk, I may even predict what route the drone would come from, having already watched a number of of them full the route from the opposite finish.

Certainly, at precisely the time that the app predicted, the drone got here and landed on the kiosk. I typed in my cellphone quantity on a display screen, and after what gave the impression of robotic arms transferring, a door lifted up, permitting me to retrieve a cardboard field. Inside was my order: an iced orange black tea, sealed in an insulating bag. My drink hadn’t spilled, and it was nonetheless chilly. And I had lastly achieved my aim of getting a drone supply in Shenzhen.

Do you suppose supply firms ought to put money into growing drone supply methods? Let me know your ideas at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Meet up with China

1. The Chinese language authorities mentioned it discovered “comparatively critical” cybersecurity dangers in merchandise offered by the American memory-chip firm Micron. (Bloomberg $)

2. An information visualization of the provision chain for lithium-ion batteries explains why the world nonetheless depends on China to make batteries for electrical autos. (New York Occasions $)

3. Chinese language researchers surpassed their American friends for the primary time in contributions to a variety of natural-science analysis journals, in line with a tutorial publication index compiled by Nature. (Nature)

4. Police departments in China have spent hundreds of thousands of {dollars} growing geographic info methods to enhance their surveillance capability. (China Digital Occasions)

5. China’s standup comedy trade has been shaken by the opportunity of nationwide censorship—all due to a joke by one comic concerning the Chinese language army. (Reuters $)

6. The enterprise of “skilled community” consultancy—paying trade consultants for info which may profit firms and buyers—has turn out to be a high anti-espionage concern for the Chinese language authorities. (Wall Road Journal $). In consequence, executives on the US consultancy agency Mintz are speeding to go away Hong Kong after the corporate was concerned in a police probe. (Reuters $)

7. Meet the astronomer who wrote over 2,000 letters in response to Chinese language UFO followers, making an attempt to make sense of their UFO sighting experiences. (Sixth Tone)

8. Montana banned TikTok within the state, and TikTok is now suing it. (Semafor)

Misplaced in translation

A cartoon dinosaur character named Momo.

When you steadily see somebody on Chinese language social media with the alias “Momo” and the avatar of a cartoonish dinosaur in pink, you aren’t assembly only one particular person, however a gaggle of individuals sharing a web based identification to keep away from being acknowledged in actual life. In response to the Chinese language tech publication 36Kr, some younger social media customers in China are more and more scared by the doxxing incidents they’ve seen on-line. To guard their privateness, they’re giving up on individualized account settings and adopting a standard identification, utilizing the identical default avatar generated by one Chinese language social platform and pretending to be the identical particular person. The sensation of group anonymity makes them really feel extra snug sharing their opinions on-line.

However it’s not an ideal answer. Some “Momos” are gatekeeping who will get to be one in every of them—they ask that individuals utilizing the avatar help the identical social causes (and since they will’t implement it, they freely assault individuals they don’t like). On the similar time, persons are discovering it troublesome to carry these nameless customers accountable once they submit excessive opinions. The neighborhood that promised to be a protected area has turned out to be stuffed with fights and politics too.

Yet one more factor

What are you able to do in case your billion-dollar tech startup fails? Properly, you possibly can at all times open a espresso store as a substitute. As Bloomberg lately reported, Dai Wei, the founding father of the famed Chinese language dockless bike-sharing firm Ofo, which as soon as put hundreds of thousands of bikes on the streets in China however has been on the sting of chapter lately, is behind a brand new espresso chain in New York Metropolis known as About Time Espresso. The café really shares fairly a couple of similarities with Dai’s final startup—each provide beneficiant reductions to draw potential prospects and have drawn beneficiant funding. The café model has already acquired greater than $10 million from buyers.