One of China’s biggest meal delivery apps says it’s received government permission to deliver food by drones to customers living on the outskirts of Shanghai -- with a few caveats.

Ele.me says the new service will operate on 17 approved routes in an industrial area that covers about 58 square kilometers (22.39 square miles), around the size of Manhattan.

The drones will only fly between fixed points. That means a human operator will need to gather meals from the restaurants and put them in the drone’s cargo box. And another operator will have to collect the meals from a drone drop-off point and deliver them to specific addresses.

Ele.me says its drones cover 70% of the delivery distance. (Picture: Ele.me)

Ele.me says the drones will help it deliver food faster, and customers will receive their takeaway within 20 minutes. It also says the distance traveled by each delivery driver will be reduced by 85%, thereby lowering operating costs significantly.

Several companies in China, including courier SF and e-commerce site JD.com, have been experimenting with drone deliveries as China updates its drone regulations.

While both of those companies started their trials in rural areas, this is the first time a meal delivery service has been given a license to fly drones in a relatively urban area.

Still, the area where Ele.me plans to begin the service is far less populated than, say, downtown Shanghai. Navigating drones in complicated urban landscapes -- with skyscrapers and all sorts of obstacles to deal with -- remains a major challenge.

But that hasn’t stopped many from trying. Uber said earlier this year that it’s planning to test food delivery by drones in San Diego as part of a government-approved program. And Meituan, Ele.me’s biggest rival, has vowed to introduce drone and driverless car deliveries to the masses next year.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba -- an investor in Ele.me.)