This week marked a milestone for the drone delivery industry when Rwanda became the first country in the world to establish a nationwide drone delivery network in collaboration with San Francisco-based Zipline.
The drone firm’s partnership with the Rwandan government opened up its service to the country’s entire population, something that had never been done. But the news probably got some observers wondering: Where’s the U.S.’s countrywide drone delivery service?
Given the snail’s pace of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, which have historically sacrificed speed for greater privacy and security, it could be years — or even decades — before such a service is able to operate in Los Angeles, New York City and everywhere in between.
There’s one duo, though, that seems to be running away with the race to build the largest drone delivery footprint. On Friday, Walmart (NYSE: WMT) and drone delivery partner DroneUp announced a trio of new markets that will bring the companies’ service to customers in Florida, Texas and Arizona.
In Arizona, the service will run out of two stores each in Glendale and Peoria. It will also operate in the Tampa and Orlando areas of Florida and the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.
The expansion adds 16 cities and 22 stores to the companies’ network and follows an announcement in May that the service would grow to six states and 4 million people by year’s end.
“Our mission is to set the gold standard for drone delivery and by partnering with Walmart, bring the incredible benefits that drones offer to local communities, organizations and businesses,” said Tom Walker, CEO of DroneUp. “Our approach is unique; we practice safety above all else and incorporate state-of-the-art technology.”
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To use DroneUp delivery, Walmart customers must be within 1 mile of a participating store. Customers can order more than 10,000 different items, including fragile goods like eggs, on the DroneUp website between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. local time. Once placed, orders are packaged and loaded, then delivered via a cable that descends into the customer’s yard.
The companies are advertising deliveries in as little as 30 minutes, markedly slower than some drone delivery services which guarantee delivery in 30 minutes at most. However, Walmart and DroneUp’s offering has no order minimum and just a $3.99 delivery fee. That’s more affordable than a few rival services, which may tack on those conditions to improve their unit economics.
According to Walmart, customers have long requested the convenience of the service.
“It may seem like a futuristic option, but it’s giving our customers what they’ve always wanted, and that’s time back to focus on what is most important to them,” said Vik Gopalakrishnan, vice president of innovation and automation at Walmart U.S.
Walmart first began working with DroneUp in 2020, when the two companies started delivering COVID-19 tests from a store in El Paso, Texas. Less than a year later, the massive retailer made a significant investment in the drone delivery provider and announced plans to make deliveries in Walmart’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas.
Interestingly, Walmart and DroneUp’s service does not make use of a Part 135 waiver from the FAA, which would permit flights beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator. Rather, the companies have elected to fly their drones where DroneUp pilots can see them, which limits the aircraft’s range to no further than 1.5 miles.
However, DroneUp this week touted its relationship with the FAA and has said in the past that it expects to fulfill orders over a distance of up to 10 miles by 2023.
“Our strong relationship with the FAA has also been critical to our success as we build an infrastructure that supports growth and great career programs for operators now and in the future,” Walker said on Friday.
By the end of the year, Walmart and DroneUp anticipate launching additional drone delivery services in Utah and Virginia, where DroneUp just expanded its Virginia Beach headquarters.
Once fully operational, the service would represent the most robust drone delivery network in the U.S. in terms of customer reach.