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How Meituan is redefining food delivery in China with drones

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On a congested sidewalk next to a busy mall in Shenzhen, a 20-something woman uses a smartphone app to order a milk tea on Meituan, a major food delivery company. In under ten minutes, the pearl-white drink arrives, not on the back of one of the city’s ubiquitous delivery bikes, but descending from the cloudy heavens, in a cardboard box on the back of a drone, into a small roadside kiosk. The only thing the scene is missing is a choir of angels.

Over the past two years, Meituan, one of China’s largest internet companies, has flown 19,000 meals to 8,000 customers across Shenzhen, a city with close to 20 million people. The pilot program is available to just seven neighborhoods, each with a three-kilometer stretch, and only from a select number of merchants. The drones deliver to designated streetside kiosks rather than hover outside people’s windows as envisioned by sci-fi writers. But the trials are proof of concept for Meituan’s ambitions, and the company is now ready to ramp up its aerial delivery ambitions.

Tencent-backed Meituan isn’t the only Chinese tech giant that hopes to fill urban skies with tiny fliers. Alibaba, which runs Meituan’s rival Ele.me, and e-commerce powerhouse JD.com, have also invested in similar drone delivery services in recent years.

On the back of the pilot program, Meituan has applied to operate a commercial drone delivery service across all of Shenzhen, Mao Yinian, head of the company’s drone delivery unit, said at a press event this month. The application, submitted in September, is currently under review by Shenzhen’s aviation authority and is expected to receive approval in 2022, though the actual timeline is subject to government decisions.

“We went from experimenting in the suburbs to a central area. That means our operational capability has reached a new level,” said Chen Tianjian, technical expert at Meituan’s drone business, at the same event.

Flying meals

At the moment, Meituan’s delivery drones still involve a good amount of manpower. Take the milk tea order, for example. Once the drink is ready, Meituan’s backend dispatch system assigns a human courier to fetch it from the merchant in the mall to the roof of the complex, where the company has set up drone takeoff pads.

Meituan’s drone launching pads on the roof of a mall in Shenzhen / Photo: TechCrunch

Before takeoff, an inspector checks to see if the box holding the drink is secure. Meituan’s navigation system then calculates the quickest and safest route for the flyer to reach the pickup kiosk and off it goes, the milk tea into the sky.

The economic viability for using drones to deliver food of course is still unproven. Each of Meituan’s small aircraft, which are built with carbon fiber and weigh around 4 kilograms, can carry about 2.5 kilograms of food — roughly the weight of an average two-person meal, according to Chen. If someone orders just one cup of milk tea, the remaining space is wasted. Each kiosk can hold about 28 orders, so at peak hours, Meituan is betting on customers to gather their food promptly.

There’s also the matter of creating waste with the new delivery boxes. Meituan said it has set up recyclable bins next to the kiosks, but customers are also free to keep the containers. It won’t be surprised if some simply chuck them in the trash.

Lessons from the U.S.

From 2017 to 2018, China’s civil aviation authority started “following” the U.S. in light of research done by the Federal Aviation Administration on low-altitude aerial mobility, according to Chen. Not long after, the Chinese regulator began formulating guides and rules for this budding field. Meituan has similarly studied the paths of its American drone counterparts, but it realizes there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, as the two countries vary markedly in population density and consumer behavior.

A customer picks up her order from Meituan’s drone landing kiosk in Shenzhen. / Photo: TechCrunch

Most Americans live in suburban sprawl, while in China and many other Asian countries, people are concentrated in urban clusters. As a result, drones in the U.S. are “focused more on endurance,” Chen said. Drones developed by Google and Amazon, for example, tend to be “fixed-winged with vertical landing and takeoff abilities,” while Meituan’s solution falls into the category of a small helicopter, which is more suited for complex urban environments.

Technologies emerging in the U.S. often offer useful clues to similar developments in China. The picture doesn’t look particularly rosy at Amazon Prime Air. The behemoth’s drone delivery business reportedly has been missing deadlines and laying off staff, though the firm said the unit continued to “make great strides.”

Prime Air, Chen argued, “doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy” and “has been vacillating between” neighborhood delivery, which is the focus of Alphabet’s Wing, and long-distance transport, which is UPS’s strong suit. He continued:

If you look at the competition between China and the U.S. in low-altitude aerial logistics, the important thing is to figure out one’s strategic position. Everyone can design a UVA. The question is what kind of UVA and for what customers.

Regulations

When asked about the safety of drone delivery, Chen said Meituan’s solution “strictly follows” the rules laid out by the “civil aviation authority.” The Beijing-headquartered company picked Shenzhen as its testing field not only because it’s home to drone giant DJI and a mature UAV supply chain. The southern metropolis, known for its economic experiments, also has some of the most friendly drone policies in China, the expert said.

Each of Meituan’s drones is registered with Shenzhen’s Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management Information Service System (UATMISS). During flights, they are required to pin UATMISS with their precise locations every five seconds. More important, Meituan’s navigation system works to ensure the flyers avoid crowds and built-up areas on the ground, even at the cost of making detours.

Milk tea arriving from Meituan’s drone delivery box / Photo: TechCrunch

The drones being piloted are Meituan’s third iteration on the model. They boast a noise level of about 50 decibels heard from a 15-meter distance, which is equivalent to “daytime street level,” according to Chen. The next generation will be even quieter with noise reduced to “nighttime street level.” But the small aircraft can’t be too quiet, as regulators have advised that having an acceptable level of noise “is safer.”

Human help

Meituan doesn’t plan to replace its millions of couriers in China with unmanned flyers outright, though automation would take some load off its overworked delivery platform. Its dispatch algorithms have come under criticism from both the public and the government for allegedly putting business performance business above rider safety. The challenge to recruit workers has already prompted labor-intensive industries to seek out robotic help.

Meituan’s goal is to find a sweet spot for human-robot collaboration. Shenzhen’s road infrastructure is notoriously unfriendly to scooter drivers and cyclists, but aerial travel isn’t restricted by such ground obstructions. Drones can fly over large interchanges and put meals at spots convenient for couriers to fetch and carry to customers’ final destination.

Meituan is already envisaging more automation. For instance, rather than having its staff manually swap depleted drone batteries, it has done R&D on automated battery swap stations. It’s also exploring a conveyor belt-like system that can move items from restaurants to drone takeoff pads nearby. These solutions are still years from large-scale deployment, but the food delivery titan is clearly gliding into an automated future.

Source: Tech

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Baidu’s electric car brand Jidu closes $400M Series A round

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Once an industry with long development cycles, the automotive space is being upended by China’s tech giants. One can hardly keep up with all the new electric vehicle brands that come out of the country nowadays. Jidu, an electric carmaking company founded by Baidu and its Chinese auto partner Geely only a year ago, said Wednesday it has banked nearly $400 million in a Series A funding round.

The new injection, bankrolled by Baidu and Geely, which owns Volvo, is a boost to the $300 million initiation capital that Jidu closed last March. The proceeds will speed up Jidu’s R&D and mass production process and allow it to showcase its first concept “robocar” — which it classifies as an automotive robot rather than a car — at the Beijing auto show in April. The mass-produced version of the robocar will launch in 2023.

Jidu’s chief executive Xia Yiping previously headed the connected car unit of Fiat Chrysler in the APAC region and co-founded Mobike, the Chinese bike-sharing pioneer acquired by Meituan in 2018.

The rate at which Jidu has moved forward is remarkable but could easily attract skeptics who question its tech’s viability. The speedy cycle, the carmaker explained, is thanks to its strategy of using a simulated prototype car to develop its smart cockpit and autonomous driving systems, rather than testing individual hardware parts in a mass-produced vehicle.

The carmaker said in as short as nine months, it has “tested and proven” the safety and reliability of its Level 4 (autonomous driving without human interaction in most circumstances) capabilities for urban and highway roads.

The EV startup is also putting a big emphasis on branding and fan community, something its competitor Nio is known for. In December, it started recruiting car lovers to join its “Jidu Union” to geek out about cars at online and offline events.

Moving forward, Jidu will be hiring and training talent specializing in autonomous driving, smart cockpits, smart manufacturing and other related technologies.

Source: Tech

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Resilience raises $45 million for its cancer care startup

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French startup Resilience announced yesterday that it has raised a $45 million (€40 million) Series A round led by Cathay Innovation. The startup wants to improve the treatment journey when you’re diagnosed with cancer so that you live a healthier and longer life.

In addition to Cathay Innovation, existing investor Singular is also participating. Other funds are joining the round, such as Exor Seeds, Picus Capital and Seaya Ventures. Finally some healthcare investors are rounding up the round — Fondation Santé Service, MACSF, Ramsay Santé and Vivalto Ventures.

I already profiled Resilience in March 2021 so I encourage you to read my previous article to learn more about the company. Co-founded by two serial entrepreneurs, Céline Lazorthes and Jonathan Benhamou, the company wants to help both patients and caregivers when it comes to cancer care.

On the patient side, Resilience helps you measure, understand and deal with the effects and side effects of cancer and cancer treatments. Users can track various data points in the app and find content and information about their illness.

But Resilience isn’t just an app that you use at home. It is also a software-as-a-service solution for hospitals so that they can better personalize their treatments. Resilience has been founded in partnership with Gustave Roussy, one of the leading cancer research institutes in the world.

Practitioners will be able to take advantage of all the data that patients have gathered from the app. This way, cancer treatment facilities understand the patient better and can adapt their care more quickly. Resilience has acquired Betterise to gain a head start when it comes to data-driven cancer care.

The long-term vision is even more ambitious than that. If you talk with a caregiver working for a cancer treatment facility, they’ll tell you they never have enough time.

And it’s even more difficult to keep track of new treatments that are becoming more and more specialized. Resilience doesn’t want to replace doctors. But it wants to help them overcome blindspots.

The result should be better care for patients, as well as more support through the Resilience app. Cancer care is a long and painful process, so anything that can improve this process is a good thing.

Source: Tech

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PQShield raises $20M for its quantum-ready, future-proof cryptographic security solutions

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Quantum computing promises to unlock a new wave of processing power for the most complex calculations, but that could prove to be just as harmful as it is helpful: security specialists warn that malicious hackers will be able to use quantum machines to break through today’s standards in cryptography and encryption. Today, a startup called PQShield that is working on “future-proof” cryptographic products — software and hardware solutions that not only keep data secure today, but also secure in anticipation of a computationally more sophisticated tomorrow — is announcing some funding as it finds some significant traction for its approach.

The startup, spun out of the research labs at Oxford, has raised $20 million, a Series A that it will be using to continue its research and, in conjunction with partners and customers, product development. The startup is already staffed with an impressive number of PhDs and other researchers across the UK (its base remains in Oxford), the U.S., France and the Netherlands, but it will also be using the funds to recruit more talent to the team.

Addition, the investment firm founded by Lee Fixel, is leading this round with Oxford Science Enterprises (formerly known as OSI) and Crane also participating. The latter two are previous backers from PQShield’s $7 million seed round in 2020.

If machine learning is shaping up to be one of the more popular (and perhaps most obvious) applications for quantum computing, security is perhaps that theme’s most ominous leitmotif.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in the U.S. identified the risks of using quantum computing for malicious security intent some eight years ago and has been receiving research submissions globally in search of coming up with some standards to counteract that threat. (PQShield is one of the contributors.) Based on signals from other government bodies like the Department of Homeland Security — coupled with a memo from the White House just earlier this month mandating that the government’s intelligence and defense services make the switch to “quantum-resistant” algorithms in 180 days — it looks like the standards process will be completed this year, getting the wheels in motion for companies that are building solutions to address all this.

“One memo can change everything,” PQShield’s CEO and founder Ali El Kaafarani said in an interview.

PQShield (the PQ stands for “post-quantum”) has been working with governments, OEMs and others that are part of the customer base for this technology — adopting it to secure their systems, or building components that will be going into products that will secure their data, or in some cases, both. Its customers includes both private and public organizations impacted by the threat. Bosch is one OEM name that it has disclosed, and El Kaafarani said more will be revealed when PQShield announces its first commercially available solutions. (Other sectors it’s working with include automotive OEM, industrial IoT, and technology consulting, it says.)

PQShield’s solutions, meanwhile, are currently coming in three formats. There is a system on a chip that is designed to sit on hardware like smartcards or processors. It also is making software by way of a cryptographic SDK that can be integrated into mobile and server apps and technologies used to process data or run security operations. And thirdly, in a new addition since it raised its seed round, it’s making a toolkit aimed at communications companies designed specifically to secure messaging services. This latter is perhaps the one that might most immediately touch the consumer market, which has been fertile ground for malicious hackers, and has increasingly become a focus for regulators and ordinary people concerned about how and where their data gets used.

All of these, El Kaafarani said, are designed to work together, or separately as needed by a would-be customer, with the key being that what it is building now can be used today, as well as in a quantum computing future.

The idea of a “quantum threat” might sound remote to most people, considering that we’re still some years away from quantum computing becoming a commercial, scalable industry, but the reality is that malicious hackers have been collecting data that will help them “solve” current cryptographic keys using those machines for years at this point. Some of this data has been publicly shown off, and much has not. All of this has been leading, El Kaafarani noted, to an “inflection point where people are now ready to think about the next phase of public key infrastructure,” which he summed up in layman’s terms as the difference between “math that is still easy to solve, and math that will still be very difficult to solve, even on a quantum computer,” due to particular combinations of math problems and aspects of complexity theory.

Quantum computing, even at its still largely nascent stage, has been fueling a lot of startup and big-tech activity. Atom Computing (which designs quantum computing systems) and Terra Quantum (building quantum-computing-as-a-service, given the likely high cost of these machines) each raised $60 million earlier this month. Intel, IBM and Amazon are among those that have making significant investments in quantum servers and processors for years now. There are others also working specifically on quantum security.

In that context, PQShield groundbreaking role in helping develop standards, and its existing network of customers and partners, spells a clear opportunity and promise for investors:

“Thanks to an industry-leading team, decades of combined experience and a best-in-class product offering, PQShield has quickly emerged as a front runner and true authority in post-quantum cryptography for hardware and software, a field with enormous market potential,” said Fixel in a statement. “PQShield is already helping to define the future of information security, and we are excited to support their ongoing growth.”

Source: Tech

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