Walmart, Alphabet to Test Wider Drone Deliveries

Drones Will Be Able to Drop Deliveries Up to Six Miles
Wing drone delivery
A Wing drone delivery to a home. (Wing via YouTube)

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Walmart Inc. is planning its longest drone deliveries yet by teaming up with Alphabet Inc.’s Wing unit at two Dallas-area stores.

The Wing drones will be able to drop off food and household essentials as far as six miles from the stores, Prathibha Rajashekhar, senior vice president of innovation and automation at Walmart’s U.S. unit, said in a statement Aug. 23. Wing has approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly its drones beyond their human operators’ visual line of sight, but with an important caveat: A spotter is still required to look out for any nearby planes that lack the ability to transmit their location.

“Wing’s technology allows operators to oversee the system from a remote location, which means pilots won’t need to be stationed at stores or customer homes,” Shannon Nash, chief financial officer of the Alphabet unit, said in a separate statement. “The aircraft essentially fly themselves, so each operator is approved to safely oversee many drones at the same time.”

The Walmart-Wing partnership, while limited for now to only two stores, marks an important expansion in drone service because of the expected range of the deliveries. While widespread deliveries around the U.S. are likely years away as the FAA finalizes its rules and companies perfect their technology, the Dallas project shows how serious retailers are about using robotic aircraft to serve online shoppers.

Wing drone delivery

A customer opens a package delivered by a Wing drone. (Wing via YouTube) 

Deliveries will begin in the coming weeks from a Walmart Supercenter in Frisco, Texas, an upscale suburb north of Dallas with a population of about 220,000. A second store will be added in the area by the end of the year.

From the two locations, Walmart expects to be able to offer drone coverage to about 60,000 homes. Service will be available between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. every day but Wednesday, and deliveries are slated to take less than 30 minutes. Prospective customers can download the Wing app to see if they’re eligible. Deliveries placed on the app will initially be free, although that could change as the service progresses.

Wing’s drones cruise at 65 mph and use a tether to drop off merchandise. The aircraft can handle even delicate items such as cartons of eggs and leave them in precise locations outside customers’ homes, the Alphabet unit said.

Walmart and Wing already have drone projects in the Dallas area. Wing began deliveries last year from a Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. store, serving customers in Frisco and nearby Little Elm, Texas. Walmart has aerial-delivery hubs in a partnership with DroneUp, which it partially owns. Walmart and DroneUp also have operations in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Utah and Virginia.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer also has U.S. drone projects with Zipline International Inc. and Israeli startup Flytrex Inc. All told, Walmart offers drone service at 36 stores in seven states, and has completed more than 10,000 deliveries.

Walmart Inc. ranks No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.

— With assistance from Alan Levin.

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