Walton: NWA poised to be ‘hub’ for advanced air mobility technologies

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 3,820 views 

Tom Ward, from left, Steuart Walton and Cyrus Sigari spoke Thursday at Thaden Fieldhouse in Bentonville, The discussion was part of the Heartland Summit.

Among many examples, one thing Northwest Arkansas is good at is scaling things up. Walmart Inc., Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport Services are just three of the business illustrations of that claim.

Steuart Walton sees an opportunity in the region for similar successes in a burgeoning space Morgan Stanley predicts will become a $1.4 trillion market by 2040. Advanced air mobility (AAM) is a new concept of air transportation that moves cargo and people between places using innovative aircraft.

“I think this region ultimately is poised to become a hub for some of these technologies to be tested, scaled, and ultimately successful over the next 10 to 20 years,” Walton said.

He is a pilot and the founder and chairman of Game Composites, a company that designs and builds small composite aircraft. Walton and a business partner, Philipp Steinbach, started the company in Great Britain in 2013. The company relocated to Bentonville’s municipal airport in 2016.

Walton made the remarks Thursday (May 12) at Thaden Fieldhouse at the Bentonville airport on the final day of the Heartland Summit. The two-day, invitation-only gathering convened Wednesday. 

The summit is the signature event of Heartland Forward in Bentonville. Heartland Forward formally launched in the fall of 2019 – one year after the Heartland Summit’s first iteration – and is spearheaded by members of the Walton family and led by former Walton Fellow and Milken Institute Chief Research Officer Ross DeVol. It is the first U.S. think tank focused exclusively on the economic situation of the Heartland region.

Organizers say their goal is to promote action by convening people playing a role in the success stories of thriving areas of America’s heartland.

In several breakout sessions scheduled Thursday at various venues throughout Bentonville, attendees discussed strategies on multiple topics and shared insights on advancing the heartland. Walton, a grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton and a Walmart Inc. board member, shared the stage at Thaden Fieldhouse for about an hour with Cyrus Sigari and Tom Ward to discuss AAM.

Sigari, an aviator, entrepreneur and investor, is the co-founder and managing partner of UP.Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm in California that is investing in technology companies that support AAM and electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft industries. He is also chairman of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Council on Future Mobility, formed earlier this year to advise on state policy to assist the private sector in AAM areas and attract related businesses, startups, innovators and creators to the state. The task force was formed to enhance the state’s collective vision to be a global leader in the future of transportation for next-generation technology by 2030. That includes not only the possibility of flying cars but driverless vehicles and drones.

Arkansas staked its claim in the market earlier this year.

One of the topics Sigari discussed was the idea of AAM relating to human-carrying aircraft, essentially drones for passengers.

“I think at scale, if we see that in 10 to 15 years, I’d be really happy,” Sigari said. “At sub-scale, in very select experiences, it will be happening here in Bentonville on June 6. But [for example] to transport people across town, from school to work, many problems are left to be solved.”

Sigari was referring to the UP.Summit, planned June 6-8 in Bentonville. First held in 2017, it’s a convening of movers and shakers in the AAM community. Sigari’s UP.Partners hosts the summit in alternating years between Bentonville, co-hosted by Steuart Walton and his brother Tom, and Dallas, co-hosted by Ross Perot Jr.

sUAS News, a news website focusing on small unmanned aerial systems, called it the “Davos of Mobility” and described it as the most important annual gathering for mobility’s boldest innovators, investors and corporations.

Ward, from the United Kingdom, started his Walmart career 16 years ago and was once a store manager for British supermarket chain Asda, which Walmart previously owned. He now lives in Bentonville and is the executive vice president and chief e-commerce officer for Walmart U.S., a promotion he earned earlier this year. Before that he was responsible for developing and managing Walmart’s last-mile delivery ecosystem, which includes third-party delivery providers, Walmart’s Spark driver platform, electric vans, autonomous vehicles and drones.

He discussed Walmart’s partnerships with three different drone technology companies (DroneUp, Flytrex, and Zipline) to start experimenting with the delivery technology in small towns in Northwest Arkansas.

“He [Ward] has absolutely taken this issue and is wrestling it to the ground,” Walton said.

Ward said drones are just the latest example of Walmart doubling down on its fulfillment potential. He noted that consumers are used to hearing about leading tech innovations on television by people on the coasts. Walmart is conducting its initial testing in Pea Ridge (Benton County) and Farmington (Washington County).

Walmart is known for its vast physical footprint in the U.S., with nearly 5,000 stores and 92% of the population living within 10 miles of one of them. Ward said the closest store to every Walmart customer is the one in their pocket, a reference to the smartphone. He made an analogy that smartphones are e-commerce’s front door. When consumers enter that door, Walmart’s testing with DroneUp and Zipline technology is beginning to compress time and space.

Walton said the physical footprint, combined with the new technologies, will be an “absolutely critical, strategic competitive advantage” for the retailer going forward.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson attended Thursday’s discussion at Thaden Fieldhouse, and Sigari invited him from the audience to contribute briefly to the conversation. Hutchinson said getting the public to buy in – many who may be predisposed to the idea that the “futuristic” technology is closer to reality than ever – is essential.

“We have to bring the public along,” he said. “We have to build their confidence in what we are doing in the future. It’s one thing to bring thought leaders, entrepreneurs and investors along. But, we also have to bring the public along. That’s part of what this [Arkansas Council on Future Mobility] is doing. Let’s break down barriers. Let’s make sure we are ready for it from a legal standpoint, but also, let’s bring the consumer along and have confidence. That’s what I think is critically important.

“Arkansas has always led in transportation,” Hutchinson added. “We’ve got entrepreneurs here. We’ve got logistics experts. If we continue to lead, which we intend to do, what you are seeing will be [Arkansas’] future.”