Walmart announced on Tuesday that it’s planning on expanding the
number of stores that offer drone-delivered packages; by the end of
the year, it hopes to fly deliveries from 34 sites across Arizona,
Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. The company says the
expansion will give up to 4 million households access to the service,
which is a significant increase. When the company launched the program
in November 2021, it was only available in a single town in Arkansas.
Walmart says that customers who live near drone-capable stores will be
able to order items weighing less than 10 pounds in total between 8 AM
and 8 PM. The deliveries, which cost $3.99, are done via a drone
operated by a company called DroneUp, which has a partnership with
Walmart. (The retailer has also invested in the delivery company.)
Workers at the Walmart location receive the order, pack it into a box,
and then secure the box to a drone. Then, a pilot flies the drone to
the customer, and it’s dropped onto their front lawn using what looks
like a giant claw.
It sounds like Walmart’s not just trying to expand the program’s
footprint — the company also wants to increase the number of packages
it’s delivering via drone. In its press release, the company says it’s
completed “hundreds of deliveries within a matter of months.” With the
expansion, it says it’ll have the ability to do more than a million
drone deliveries a year.
In its press release, the company said it thought people would use the
service for “emergency items” and has been surprised that something
like Hamburger Helper has become the top-selling item at one location.
I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m skeptical of this claim — how could
anyone introduce a service where a package is flown to you in “as
little as 30 minutes” and not expect that people would use it to
replace those quick trips to the store to pick up one or two items?
With this planned expansion, Walmart could take the lead when it comes
to commercial drone delivery in the US. The Wall Street Journal
reports that while companies like FedEx and UPS are looking into
drones, they’re currently more in the experimentation stage rather
than the “offering it as a service phase.” Alphabet, Google’s parent
company, is operating a drone delivery service called Wing in Texas
and Virginia, and it’s delivered hundreds of thousands of packages
worldwide, but it currently hasn’t announced further expansion plans.
Then, of course, there’s Amazon, which has been working on its drone
delivery service for many years. Several recent reports, however, make
it seem as if the company is struggling to get its program off the
ground; despite a 2016 demonstration delivery in the UK, Amazon
currently isn’t delivering packages by drones, and it’s unclear if and
when that’ll start.
Amazon is, however, trying to play a very different game. It wants its
drone deliveries to be autonomous, meaning that there won’t be any
human pilots. Walmart and DroneUp’s system, however, has “certified
pilots” at the helm. While this might make it more difficult for
Walmart to scale drone deliveries at a rapid pace, some of its
customers are probably getting used to getting their packages dropped
down from the sky; that’s not something that can be said for Amazon.
As Ars Technica points out, though, Walmart’s system does have some
limitations. Currently, it’s legally required to have line-of-sight to
the drones while they’re flying, meaning that it has to have control
towers in its stores’ parking lots to offer drone service. This
limitation also means that deliveries have to happen within a 1.5-mile
radius of the store. And, of course, DroneUp has to hire more
operators as more people use the service. Earlier this year, it
announced plans to do so, and now it’s clear why; now, DroneUp and
Walmart just have to deliver on their promises of expansion.