Meituan implements delivery robots and drones

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, November 29, 2020
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China's leading e-commerce platform for services, Meituan, has ramped up R&D and its implementation of unmanned delivery robots and drones for its food delivery service, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its chief scientist told

Xia Huaxia, Meituan chief scientist and head of AI platform, speaks at an event during the World Internet Conference - Internet Development Forum in Wuzhen, east China's Zhejiang province, held on Nov. 23 and 24, 2020. [Photo courtesy of Meituan]

Meituan is one of the most commonly used online platform in people's daily lives. It is used for the purchase of all sorts of goods and services, from food to hotel rooms to movie tickets. It serves more than 2,800 counties, districts and cities in China. From the last half of 2019 to the first half of 2020, the company had 460 million trading users and 6.3 million active sellers on its platform. There are now nearly four million Meituan food delivery men, who deliver 40 million orders per day. 

With such large number of customers and transactions, the demand for distribution capacity is increasing continuously.

"In 2016, we began to develop an unmanned delivery service. We did so for two reasons. First, we know that it's tough for delivery men to do all the jobs manually, especially during the cold winter or in the flood season in summer," said Xia Huaxia, Meituan chief scientist and head of artificial intelligence (AI) platform, "Second, we realized at that time that the takeaway business would expand quickly and that the number of workers we were able to recruit would soon be unable to meet the demand."

Meituan already had generations of experience in technological R&D before this year's sudden outbreak of COVID-19. This enabled it to bring forward the implementation of several products, initially intended for the end of this year, to the first half of the year.

An unmanned Meituan delivery robot is moving from one community to another in Beijing. [Photo courtesy of Meituan]

Fifteen of the world's leading internet scientific and technological achievements were unveiled and presented with awards on Monday at the World Internet Conference - Internet Development Forum held in Wuzhen, east China's Zhejiang province. Meituan's "AI-based COVID-19 Prevention & Control - Overall Solution of Meituan Autonomous Delivery" is one of them. 

Meituan's unmanned delivery robots have been working since February and so far have made more than 11,000 deliveries in Shunyi district, Beijing. The robot vehicles self-drive from Meituan's green grocery stops to 15 communities in the district. The longest distance a robot runs is about six kilometers.

"The self-driving technology has its own five-fold security mechanism. There is also a backup 'cerebellum' in each vehicle that can apply the brakes in an emergency. Besides, we have remote monitoring technology to send back real-time images to our control center. Our staff will make checks on a possible emergency after such automatic braking or a possible collision," said Xia.

These robots have always attracted curious people while on the road. Some people play with the robot vehicles when they see them approaching or take photos in front of them from time to time, often blocking their route. "After moving quickly on the open road, the robots then slow down as they enter residential communities, and people will gather around them; kids even have fun with them," the executive laughed.

Xia said that the company is still working to put robots to work in more applications, after refining and perfecting the technologies, upgrading from simple operations to duties of greater complexity -- especially in densely populated places.

Robots sometimes visit or pass through areas that are only thinly covered by 5G signals or not covered at all. Meituan's engineers and designers found a solution; their innovation combines six 4G chips to send information back to the control center to ensure remote monitoring. "Of course, when 5G is widely deployed, everything will be much easier, " Xia said.

Since 2017, Meituan has also been conducting R&D on delivery drones. The drones are being tested in Beijing and Shenzhen and will gradually be put into operation over the next few years. 

The chief scientist also mentioned that Meituan, being a huge platform, collects a great deal of confidential data from customers. "It always treats customers' data as a top priority and protects it with multiple layers of security. It is usually only computer programs, and not humans, that can access the data."

In addition, Meituan has recently established a committee for AI governance to regulate data used internally by preparing technical specifications and regulations. "In the digital world, this kind of security is very different from the security of the physical world. In the physical world we can close the door and turn the key, but in the digital world, there are actually many kinds of security issues. We also need a door with a lock in the digital world -- an invisible lock and an invisible door. How we design and standardize that is very important."

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