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September 25, 2019 9:45 AM, EDT

Walgreens, FedEx Express Partner With Google Parent on Drones

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Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., said it is collaborating with FedEx Corp.’s Express division and pharmacy retailer Walgreens to launch a drone-delivery service in Christiansburg, Va.

The pilot program, which begins next month, will experiment with methods to execute final-mile delivery, improve access to health care products, and create possible new growth for local businesses, the companies said.

They will use the pilot program to also explore the future of 21st century retail delivery, the Wing coalition said, adding it would be the first U.S. retailer to offer an on-demand commercial drone delivery option.

Vish Sankaran

Sankaran

Vish Sankaran, chief innovation officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., said Walgreens will now be in a unique position to capitalize on the convenience of drone delivery if and when it should expand, with approximately 78% of the U.S. population living within 5 miles of a Walgreens store.

The news comes as major players such as Amazon.com Inc. and Mercedes-Benz continue to study how to take a share of the growing autonomous delivery and drone market.

Other motives are to cut delivery costs and emissions.

Final-mile is the biggest component of overall delivery cost at 53%, compared with 37% for linehaul, according to a global survey by Connecticut-based research company Gartner Inc.

The move by Alphabet, also the parent of search engine giant Google, to align with FedEx and Walgreens is sure to draw attention.

FedEx said its customers who live within designated delivery zones in Christiansburg, Va., and who opt in to Wing delivery service, will be able to receive their packages via drone during the trial.

Walgreens said it will make over-the-counter medicines, health food, beverage and convenience products available to local residents for delivery on-demand, through the air, within minutes after they are ordered.

Wing officials said Christiansburg was selected as the pilot location because of ties for the past several years with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, an FAA-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems.

Wing was founded in 2012, and has conducted more than 80,000 flights across three continents.

Companies welcomed the news.

“I absolutely do believe this is happening,” said Ryan Walsh, co-founder and CEO of Valqari, a Plainfield, Ill.-based firm that is developing residential and commercial mailboxes and receptacles for drones to make drops. “It’s taking a little bit longer than the timeline put out by (Amazon CEO) Jeff Bezos in 2013.”

In November 2013, Bezos told CBS News’ 60 Minutes that Amazon was testing drone delivery. Amazon Prime Air could be up and running within four years, Bezos said at the time.

Walsh told Transport Topics that Bezos was relatively close to target. Autonomous drones and delivery cars will become a dominant force in final-mile, Walsh predicted. And autonomous and drone technology is green and sustainable, he added.

Wing is also working with Sugar Magnolia, a southwestern Virginia retailer, to offer drone delivery of candies, gifts, stationery and paper goods to local residents.

“(Drone delivery) will be immensely popular if it works as they say it will,” said John Robbins, an associate professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

But Robbins said there are still significant hurdles, such as federal regulation.

Federal officials appear ready to ease some regulations, though. In January, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a proposed rule to allow drone operators to fly their machines at night.

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Amy Moore, a research associate with Oak Ridge National Laboratory of Knoxville, Tenn., said lightweight medical and pharmaceutical payloads are ideal and appropriate for drones in the quest to ease congestion and auto emissions.

“It’s much less energy-intensive (than a car),” Moore said. “When it comes to medical supplies, drones are a good fit.”