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Drone Delivery Gets Underway in Virginia—Without Amazon

Consumers in southeast Virginia will see some new aircraft taking to their skies in the weeks ahead.

Wing, the drone startup owned by Google parent company Alphabet, is working with Walgreens to test on-demand drone delivery service in the Christiansburg, Va., area, near Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus where the aerial innovator has been trialing drone operations as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Integration Pilot Program for the past three years.

The move marks a foray into delivery within minutes, whereas retailers ranging from Amazon and Walmart to Macy’s to Verishop, an e-commerce startup, have been investing in infrastructure to make free or low-cost same- and next-day delivery the new normal for consumers.

And it signals a blow to Amazon, which tested its Prime Air drone delivery service back in 2016 but was snubbed when the Federation Aviation Administration selected 10 companies to test their drones in May. This summer, however, the tech giant debuted a new hybrid-style drone and claimed its aircraft would be making deliveries in a matter of months, Jeff Wilke, CEO of consumer worldwide, said at Amazon’s re:MARS conference in June. Amazon’s electric drones can fly 15 miles and lug packages up to 5 pounds—which accounts for up to 90 percent of all its deliveries—to customers within 30 minutes, he added.

Wing’s trial with Walgreens will shuttle similarly modest package to customer homes, focusing on the food and beverage, health and wellness, and convenience product categories at launch.

“With a customer-led focus, we continue to create differentiated shopping experiences that provide the products and services consumers need wherever, whenever and however they may want them,” Vish Sankaran, chief innovation officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., said.

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“This is the kind of omnichannel partnership and offering that can redefine convenience for our customers and communities—delivering items to homes in minutes, not hours or days,” Sankaran added.

Wing says its drones emit a low-pitched hum that blends into the sounds typical of residential neighborhoods, like the white noise of idling car engines or buzz of a lawnmower. When it reaches a customer destination, the drone will hover about 23 feet in the air before lowering the tethered package to the ground.

As speed to customer becomes less of a differentiator and more of an expectation, retailers have high hopes for a delivery option that shifts traffic from congested streets to the clear blue skies. And the use of drones in logistics and transportation could drive the market to $1.6 billion by 2027, according to data from ResearchandMarkets.com.