Walmart expands drone delivery in Northwest Arkansas with DroneUp

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,983 views 

On Monday (Nov. 22), Walmart said it was expanding its partnership with DroneUp to bring drone delivery to more Northwest Arkansas stores. The announcement comes as the retail giant has another drone delivery partnership with Zipline operating out of the Pea Ridge Neighborhood Market, making deliveries within a 50-mile radius.

Walmart’s DroneUp partnership will operate out of Neighborhood Market locations in Farmington and Rogers and a Supercenter in Bentonville. The Farmington location is already in operation, and the other stores will come online in the next few months. The deliveries via drones will take place between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., seven days a week. The retailer said the drones could make air deliveries of eligible items within 30 minutes.

“When we invested in DroneUp earlier this year, we envisioned a drone delivery operation that could be quickly executed and replicated across multiple stores,” Tom Ward, senior vice president of last-mile at Walmart U.S., said in a statement. “Opening our first hub within months of our initial concept showcases DroneUp’s ability to safely execute drone delivery operations with speed. We’re already hearing great customer feedback at our first site in Farmington, Ark., and look forward to opening additional locations.”

Walmart said thousands of items are available for drone delivery. Not all addresses are eligible for drone delivery, and customers will need to enter their addresses into online orders to verify service availability. Once the order is placed, Walmart said operators pack the order and secure the box to the drone using a patented delivery release mechanism. The flight engineer manages a controlled and guided delivery, placing the order gently at the customer’s home.

“Teaming up with Walmart to launch three delivery Hubs marks a significant leap forward in the broader use of UAS [unmanned aircraft system] to provide last-mile consumer delivery services and supply chain efficiency options,” DroneUp CEO Tom Walker said. “Walmart and DroneUp provide an unrivaled ability to pick, pack, and deliver via drones directly from the store to consumers offering efficiencies no other retailer can match. We are proud of our team’s ability to deliver the technology helping Walmart launch a new era of commercial drone operations.”

Walmart first announced the DroneUp partnership in June 2020 to test at-home COVID-19 self-collection kits. Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner said the trial demonstrated that Walmart could offer customers delivery in minutes versus hours. This summer, Walmart invested DroneUp and began planning to scale the operations.

Walmart said DroneUp is a well-respected innovator and drone operator and among the first to use the FAA 107.39 waiver that allows an operator to make delivery flights over people and moving vehicles. Ward said Walmart is uniquely positioned to take advantage of drone delivery innovation given its infrastructure of 4,700 stores located within 10 miles of 90% of the U.S. population.

“The drone services industry has reached an inflection point of rapidly increased adoption and acceptance. Walmart and DroneUp are uniquely positioned to succeed in the next chapter of last-mile delivery. Walmart’s vast hub-and-spoke network, combined with DroneUp’s extensive operational expertise, will unlock affordable rapid delivery and nationwide drone services.” Walker said.

The DroneUp pilot is one of several tests Walmart is trying to improve final-mile deliveries. The Zipline drone pilot operating out of Pea Ridge focuses on delivering health and wellness items like cough drops or other select products within 30 minutes.

The Zipline drone looks like a large model airplane and it is loaded by an employee and then launched toward its deliveries in the new land and launch structure located behind the store. When the drone reaches the customer’s home, it releases the box in a parachute drop into the customer’s backyard. The drone then returns to the launch pad at the store. Customers can track their deliveries via the Zipline app.

“Zipline’s aircraft can help provide immediate access to needed items for both hard-to-reach and at-risk populations, such as rural communities and elderly customers,” Ward said.

Walmart began testing the Zipline drone in Fayetteville, N.C., last year. Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said that the company had seen first-hand the impact that instant logistics can have in getting products to consumers quickly during the past year.

“Working with Walmart, we’re able to bring this type of service to Northwest Arkansas, showcasing what the future of health access looks like,” Rinaudo added.

Walmart also has drone delivery pilots underway with Israeli firm Flytrex in other markets. Walmart has not disclosed its investment in drone delivery systems.

Analysts have largely applauded retailers’ efforts to test drone delivery to help reduce the costs of last-mile expenses, which are the majority (53%) of the total shipping cost. McKenzie reported retailers could slash final-mile delivery expenditures by as much as 70% using drones over using third-party services.

Gartner estimates as many as 20,000 retail delivery drones are in use around the planet, and the consulting firm predicts that number will grow to more than a million in the next five years.