ChainMail | Flying Toothpaste

Delivery drones take off

ChainMail | Flying Toothpaste

The idea seems equal parts “The Jetsons” and “The Simpsons” for its futuristic solution to the couch potato’s dilemma: How to get a box of Hamburger Helper delivered as quickly as possible. 

Walmart is expanding the use of flying delivery drones beyond initial tests to 34 sites by the end of the year, reaching a potential market of 4 million households in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Using partner company DroneUp, Walmart says customers will be able to order up to 10 pounds of items, ranging from toothpaste to hot dog buns, and get delivery airdropped to their home within 30 minutes for a fee of $3.99. 

Walmart says it will be able to deliver as many as 1 million packages a year and claims consumers are on board (even though a pilot is not). Executives initially thought most purchases would be emergency items, but company executive David Guggina said in a blog post that shoppers use drone delivery “for its sheer convenience, like a quick fix for a weeknight meal. Case in point: The top-selling item at one of our current hubs is Hamburger Helper.”

Drones represent a potential solution to the logistics challenge of “last mile” delivery — getting goods to their final destination, such as a city apartment or suburban home. Trucks are the norm, but an electric-powered drone is environmentally cleaner, faster, and doesn’t contribute to street congestion.

Industry experts say broader use of delivery drones is still at least five years away. And there’s reason to be skeptical that pizzas (hot or frozen) dropping from the sky will become more than a novelty. The complexity of the technology, expense of operations, and need to comply with strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety rules to manage crowded skies all work against the concept of drones replacing delivery vans. “There are lots of is­sues with drones,” UPS Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Carol Tomé said in January. ”You can’t fly them when it’s windy, you can’t fly them when it’s rainy.”

No one’s blinking yet. Walmart is in a race with Wing, a sister company to Google, which has begun offering drone delivery service for two Walgreens stores in suburban Dallas. Amazon is also in the game but apparently lagging. 

Drones already are off the ground in African nations including Ghana as well as Finland, and Australia, delivering medicine, food, and other goods. “It only feels weird and sci-fi in the United States,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told Axios. An independent study found that Zipline’s drone delivery service of medical products in Ghana decreased the number of days that facilities were without critical supplies by 21%. Zipline said in February it would test drone delivery of prescription medications in Charlotte, N.C.

Tech startups, logistics companies, and e-commerce firms are working on delivery drones as part of the broader field of automation that includes self-driving cars and trucks. The technology relies on artificial intelligence and sensors.     

At this point drone deliveries for consumers as a large-scale business still feel far-fetched. It’s easier to visualize the growth of specialized drones for infrastructure inspection, agricultural surveying, wildfire monitoring, and other public safety missions. 

Then again, don’t underestimate the allure of flying toothpaste.

Read the complete Issue 12 of ChainMail here.

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