June 1, 2023

I ordered a bubble tea by drone in Shenzhen

I ordered a bubble tea by drone in Shenzhen

I have found that the reality of drone delivery is still far from ideal, and people can be turned away by the steep learning curve. But at the same time, it’s been an exciting experience—the prospect of routine drone delivery feels more realistic than it ever has.

Meituan currently operates more than a hundred drones from five delivery centers (or launch sites) in the city. Together, they completed more than 100,000 orders in 2022. While the platform itself can deliver basically anything, from dinner to medicine to fresh flowers to electronics, the drones are mostly used for food and drink.

Why? Because Chinese people care about the temperature of their meals, Mao Yinian, head of Meituan’s drone delivery department, tells me. “People care a lot about that – whether they can receive a hot meal or a cup of bubble tea on time. But when it comes to other [types of products], people don’t care if it arrives 30 minutes faster or slower,” he says. Since Meituan’s drone flight routes are all automated—and the drones never run into traffic—it’s easier to precisely control the time it takes for the meal to be delivered. The drones usually arrive within seconds of the estimated time.

Having a cup of bubble tea delivered exactly when you want it? As a bubble tea enthusiast, I can only sign up. But when I tried it, I found out that it is not as simple as it sounds.

The first hurdle: the drones don’t deliver to your doorstep. Instead, deliver them to one of a dozen vans scattered across the city—vending machine-sized kiosks that function as both a landing spot for the drone and storage for your package if you’re late picking it up.

A yellow and white Meituan pickup kiosk in front of trees.  A man is standing nearby.
A Meituan bakkie kiosk at the entrance of a residential area.


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

Nope. I immediately got a text telling me that “due to a system upgrade,” my order will be delivered by a human courier instead. Was 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 were working.

It turns out, she told me, I ordered from a restaurant in another district, and there were no drone routes flying from there to the kiosk I wanted to send my order to. There’s no way to know that from the app, she said.

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