Pie From the Sky? Walmart Drone Deliveries Take Off
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Drone delivery is no longer a thing of the future. It’s happening in Hampton Roads, Va., and soon, at Walmart stores across the country.
Customers at a Walmart there can be among the first in the country to receive a drone delivery, courtesy of DroneUp, a Virginia Beach company. For $3.99, customers within a 0.8-mile radius of the store can request a delivery.
“I tell these guys it’s like, ‘Man, we just invented the tire,’ ” said Patrick Sanford, DroneUp shift lead at the Hampton Roads store. “We’re going to be the first truck drivers.”
On a brisk day in Virginia Beach, about six DroneUp employees huddled around a tented staging area in the Walmart parking lot for a test flight. The crew included two pilots, a visual observer who follows the drone to its destination and a few more employees. When a customer orders a delivery, the workers get a notification through an iPhone app. They go into Walmart and select the items — a package of Oreos or a half-gallon of milk — then pack up the goods.
Before flight, a worker inspects the drone, then attaches the package to a winch at the bottom of the craft.
“Once we do that, we send a flight ops cue to our computer system,” said Max Rodriguez, DroneUp hub leader. “It’s going to create a route to that residence, avoiding major schools, medical offices.”
The team then completes a preflight safety inspection before takeoff. As a pilot looks on from a dual-monitor computer setup nearby, the drone whirs to life, ascending to 266 feet.
There are limits to the service. Right now, the drones can only carry items that fit in a box about the size of a large fried chicken takeout container. The drones can carry up to 10 pounds, but for now, the flights are limited to 4, Rodriguez said. The drone can only deliver to single-family homes and townhouses but the team is working on a way to expand to apartments and condominiums.
Weather is another limiting factor. The drone doesn’t operate if winds climb above 22 mph, he said. Rain and other forms of precipitation can also ground flights, and the drone doesn’t operate at night.
After ascending to its operating height, the drone zooms off to a green field behind the Walmart, where it completes the test flight. The machine descends to 80 feet, and the winch descends to ground level, where it releases the package before it zips back to the drone.
Operators at DroneUp run a test delivery near the Virginia Beach Walmart on Lynnhaven Parkway. The drones can deliver to homes and townehouses (no apartments yet) up to 0.8 miles away. pic.twitter.com/KqtgVhYpL6 — Trevor Metcalfe (@TrevorEMetcalfe) March 16, 2023
After delivery, the drone zooms back to the staging area, where a camera scans a QR code on the ground and initiates landing.
During the flight, a steady stream of curious Walmart customers in their cars pulled up to the staging area, asking DroneUp workers about the service. Educating the public is a big part of the job, Rodriguez said.
“The kids are excited,” he said, later pointing out a nearby child waving at the drone.
The company advertises drone delivery as taking 30 minutes or less to complete after submitting the order. Right now, the company averages roughly 10 deliveries a week, Rodriguez said.
Walmart store lead Cory Friend said in an email that customers and employees are excited about the service. Right now, the store has a minimal role in operations. He said Walmart workers “ensure our shelves are stocked, and our parking lot serves as the hub for DroneUp’s operations.”
DroneUp signed a deal with Walmart in 2021, gaining the financial and infrastructure support of the world’s largest retailer. DroneUp announced a $27.2 million expansion project in August that will create 655 jobs in Virginia Beach and Petersburg.
In 2022, DroneUp completed more than 6,000 flights at 36 Walmart stores in Arkansas, Virginia, Texas, Florida, Utah, Arizona and North Carolina. About 85% of Walmart’s grocery store items meet the weight and volume requirements for drone delivery.
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A Walmart spokesperson said in an email that the company selected DroneUp for its focus on safety and speed.
“With 4,700 stores located within 10 miles of 90% of the U.S. population, Walmart is uniquely positioned to execute drone delivery at scale,” the spokesperson added.
What are some of Walmart customers’ favorite drone delivery purchases? Great Value Cookies and Cream Ice Cream, a 2-pound bag of lemons, rotisserie chicken, Red Bull and Bounty paper towels, the company said.
Walmart ranks No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.
Customers can learn about the drone delivery and its availability for their address at droneupdelivery.com.
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