Walmart announced Tuesday that it plans to expand the number of stores that offer drone-delivered packages; by the end of the year, it hopes to fly deliveries from 34 locations in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah and Virginia. The company says the expansion will give access to the service to 4 million households, which is a significant increase. When the company launched the program in November 2021, it was only available in one city in Arkansas.
Walmart says customers who live near drone stores can order items that weigh less than 10 pounds in total between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. The deliveries, which cost $3.99, are made via a drone operated by a company called DroneUp, which has a partnership with Walmart. (The retailer has also invested in the delivery company.) Employees at the Walmart location receive the order, package it in a box, and then attach the box to a drone. Next, a pilot flies the drone at the customer and it is dropped on their front yard using what appears to be a giant claw.
It sounds like Walmart isn’t just trying to expand the program’s footprint — the company also wants to increase the number of packages it delivers via drone. In its press release, the company says it has completed “hundreds of deliveries within months.” With the expansion, it says it will be able to make more than a million drone deliveries per year.
In the press release, the company said it thought people would use the service for “emergency items” and was surprised that something like Hamburger Helper has become the best-selling item in one location. I’ll be very honest, I’m skeptical of this claim – how could anyone introduce a service where a package is flown to you in “just 30 minutes” and not expect people to use it to replace those quick trips to the store to pick up an item or two?
With this planned expansion, Walmart could lead the way when it comes to commercial drone delivery in the US. The Wall Street Journal reports that while companies like FedEx and UPS are looking at drones, they are currently more in the experimental phase than in the “offer as a service” phase. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, operates a drone delivery service called Wing in Texas and Virginia, and has delivered hundreds of thousands of packages worldwide, but has not announced any further expansion plans at this time.
Then, of course, there’s Amazon, which has been working on its drone delivery service for many years. However, several recent reports make it look like the company is struggling to get its program off the ground; despite a 2016 demonstration delivery in the UK, Amazon is not currently delivering packages by drones, and it’s unclear if or when that will begin.
However, Amazon is trying to play a very different game. It wants its drone deliveries to be autonomous, meaning there will be no human pilots. However, Walmart and DroneUp’s system has “certified pilots” at the helm. While this may make it harder for Walmart to scale drone deliveries at a rapid pace, some of its customers are probably getting used to dropping their packages out of the sky; that cannot be said of Amazon.
if Ars Technica points out, however, that Walmart’s system has some limitations. Currently, it is required by law to have a line of sight to the drones as they fly, meaning it must have control towers in its retail parking lots in order to provide drone service. This restriction also means that deliveries must be made within 1.5 miles 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 need to deliver on their promises of expansion.