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Walmart Preps Second Drone Delivery Launch

Less than a week after officially revealing its first official drone program, Walmart already has unveiled yet another iteration of its drone delivery plans—this time, one that can cover a 50-mile radius. Flaunting a launch-and-release system that targets on-demand delivery in under an hour, Walmart is leveraging battery-powered drones from logistics service provider and drone delivery network Zipline.

The drones, which look like small glider planes, will likely begin trialing deliveries early next year near Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., using Zipline’s proprietary technology. If successful, the big-box giant will look to expand the technology elsewhere, Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product at Walmart, wrote in a blog post.

The new service will execute on-demand deliveries of select health and wellness products with the potential to expand to general merchandise. Based on a video in the blog post, the drone opens its hatch mid-flight to drop a package with a parachute to land it at the customer’s address.

Zipline began operating in late 2016 in Rwanda, primarily focusing on the on-demand delivery of medical supplies. To date, the company has safely delivered more than 200,000 critical medical products to thousands of health facilities serving more than 20 million people across multiple countries, according to Ward. The company counts Sequoia, A16Z, GV, Temasek, TPG, Baillie Gifford, and Katalyst Ventures among its backers, and was recently valued at $1.2 billion.

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Zipline recently made a medical delivery deal in the U.S. as a result of Covid-19. In May, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted Novant Health the authority for contactless distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical medical supplies to frontline medical teams in the Charlotte, N.C., metro area, via Zipline-operated drones.

The service, at least on the surface, appears to be more robust than the Flytrex drone plans Walmart initially revealed. Typical Flytrex drones can carry packages weighing up to 6.6 pounds and fly approximately 6.2 miles on a round trip, according to the company’s website, a much shorter distance than the 50-mile radius covered by Zipline. The Flytrex delivery test is delivering select groceries and essential items in Fayetteville, N.C.

The moves show that Walmart certainly isn’t backing down to the challenges posed by its biggest competitor, e-commerce giant Amazon. Amazon recently received FAA approval to operate its fleet of Prime Air delivery drones, which will allow the company to expand unmanned package delivery. The certification comes under Part 135 of FAA regulations, which gives Amazon the ability to carry property on small drones beyond the visual line of sight of the operator. The agency has issued similar certificates to Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, and UPS Flight Forward.

A Walmart package is loaded into a Zipline drone.
A Walmart package is loaded into a Zipline drone. Courtesy

The additional drone shouldn’t come as a surprise when looking into the surplus of patents Walmart began filing related to drones. Despite being relatively quiet about its drone ambitions compared to its Seattle-based rival, Walmart filed more drone-related patents than Amazon in the two years prior—and nearly twice as many since July 2018, according to data made available by international accounting firm BDO in June 2019.

Walmart filed 97 drone patents with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) compared to the 54 drone-related designs filed by Amazon in the same time frame, the firm found. In the 12 months prior, Walmart managed to file 57 new patents in the field of drone technology while Amazon filed 54.

Either way, the scaling of these drones, particularly when it comes to delivering packages beyond trials, will likely remain slow given the federal regulations required to be lifted. The FAA needs to complete rules for remote identification of more than 480,000 drones currently registered for commercial operations, and issue separate rules permitting drones to regularly fly over populated areas.

New drones augment sustainability push

This drone service also strives to eliminate carbon emissions, injecting an element of sustainability into this new logistics offering.

In April 2017, Walmart launched Project Gigaton, an initiative designed to eliminate one gigaton (one billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide from Walmart’s global value chain by 2030. To date, more than 2,300 suppliers from 50 countries are participating in Project Gigaton. Suppliers have reported a cumulative 230 million metric tons of avoided emissions since 2017—more than 20 percent of the overall goal—through energy, waste, packaging, agriculture, forests and product use and design.

Earlier this month, Walmart revealed it was collaborating with Schneider Electric to provide increased access to renewable energy for the retailer’s U.S.-based suppliers, enabling them to lead on climate action. The initiative, called the Gigaton PPA (GPPA) Program, is tasked with educating Walmart suppliers about renewable energy purchases and accelerating renewable energy adoption by participating suppliers through aggregate power purchase agreements (PPA).