Workflow is a mix of human and automated labor. Once the drone delivery system receives an order (customers order specific items marked for drone delivery in the company’s app), a runner (human) heads to the restaurant, all located a few flights down a shopping mall, orders to pick up and brings it to Launchpad. The runner places the food and drink in a standardized cardboard box, weighs it to make sure it’s not too heavy, seals the box, and hands it over to a different employee who specializes in drone handling. He is expert. Another worker places the box under the drone and waits for it to lock.
Everything is highly automated after that, says Mao Yinian, director of drone delivery services at Meituan. The drone’s movements are controlled by a central algorithm, and routes are predetermined. “You can know in advance, at every precise second, where each drone will be and how fast it is moving, so customers can expect an arrival time with a deviation of two seconds instead of three minutes or 10 minutes (when It comes down to traditional distributions),” he tells MIT Technology Review.
The company has a centralized control room in Shenzhen, where employees can control the drone in case of emergency. There are now over a hundred drones that can be deployed for city deliveries. On average one operator is watching 10 drones at the same time.
All human labor cannot or should not be replaced by machines, says Mao. But the company has plans to automate the delivery process even more. For example, Mao would like to see robots tasked with loading packages on drones and changing their batteries: “Our ground crew may have to bend over a hundred times a day to load packages and change batteries. The human body can handle such activities.” Not made for.
“Our vision is to turn [launchpad] In a fully automated factory assembly line,” he says. “The only work for humans is to put non-standardized food and beverages into a standardized packaging box, and then there’s no more work for humans.”
Regulatory and Economic Barriers
Jonathan Roberts, a professor of robotics at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia who has researched drones since 1999, says that today, few technical hurdles remain for the delivery of food and packages. “We can certainly do reliable drone delivery, but whether it makes financial sense is a little hard to know,” he says.
Regulation often dictates where companies choose to set up shop. In 2002, Australia was the first country in the world to introduce legislation on unmanned aerial vehicles, technically called drones. The law allowed universities and companies to use drones as long as they obtained an official license. “Therefore [Australia] was the perfect place to test,” says Roberts. That’s why Alphabet’s Wing tested and launched its drone delivery in Australia before testing it in any other country.
It was a similar story for the city of Meituan and Shenzhen, where the municipal government has a strong drone manufacturing supply chain and is particularly friendly towards the industry. At the national policy level, the central government has allowed Shenzhen, one of the country’s designated special economic zones, more flexibility in terms of commercial drone legislation.