It didn’t take long for Walmart to announce its drone plans to the world after Amazon got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to start commercial drone delivery. Walmart is launching an end-to end drone delivery pilot of its own in Fayetteville, N.C., with a focus on delivering select grocery and household essential items using automated drones from Flytrex.
Walmart said it’s looking to generate insight into the customer and associate experience via the drone tests through certain steps of the process, including picking and packing, takeoff and delivery.
“We know that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone,” wrote Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product at Walmart, in a blog post. “That still feels like a bit of science fiction, but we’re at a point where we’re learning more and more about the technology that is available and how we can use it to make our customers’ lives easier.”
Ward did not include any details on the drone pilot, other than that it was “controlled over the cloud” using a control dashboard. Typical Flytrex drones can carry packages weighing up to 6.6 pounds and are capable of flying approximately 6.2 miles on a round trip, according to the Flytrex website.
Although Walmart hadn’t shared its drone ambitions throughout the year (like Amazon), primarily as other more important issues came to the fore amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the company has had a recent history that suggested that investment in the technology was serious.
According to data made available by international accounting firm BDO in June 2019, Walmart filed more drone-related patents than Amazon in the two years prior—and nearly twice as many since July 2018.
BDO found that over the year-long span, 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. In the 12 months prior, Walmart managed to file 57 new patents in the field of drone technology while Amazon filed 54.
The FAA hasn’t granted Walmart the same Part 135 air carrier certificate it awarded to Amazon, so the pilot program will remain in testing mode for now. The agency has issued similar certificates to Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, and UPS Flight Forward.
Walmart’s delivery investments have kicked up across the board in 2020 as virus-wary consumers increasingly prefer having items delivered at their doorsteps in the face of the pandemic. The retail giant has accelerated the expansion of its in-store pickup and delivery services. In June, Walmart expanded its “store-to-door” Express Delivery service to nearly 2,000 total stores. Express Delivery enables customers to order across more than 160,000 items from Walmart’s food, consumables and general merchandise assortment such as groceries, everyday essentials, toys and electronics, and rivals Amazon’s popular Prime Now service.
In August, Walmart partnered with delivery giant Instacart to offer same-day delivery starting in three California markets—Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego—as well as Tulsa, Okla., which all give customers the opportunity to have Walmart-purchased apparel at their doorstep within hours.
Also, Walmart is finally launching its long-awaited, twice-delayed Walmart+ membership on Sept. 15, which will cost $98 per year and give members unlimited free delivery from stores, fuel discounts and access to tools designed to make shopping faster. The price beats out Amazon Prime’s $119 per year, and while many are curious if the service can actually pull in consumers that already pay for Prime and its excess of content and services, Walmart’s fuel discounts are a perk that no other major retail player can match.
Walmart is still ranked a distant second to Amazon’s 38 percent market share of online sales only at 5.8 percent, according to eMarketer. This means Walmart has plenty of incentive to try and catch up to Amazon through any means necessary. The company even confirmed that it is going well outside its typical wheelhouse by partnering with Microsoft in its bid for the U.S. branch of social media sensation TikTok, which could give the retail giant yet another online avenue to promote its business to a new audience.
The blog post cited the company’s autonomous automobile delivery tests with companies like Ford, Gatik and Nuro, indicating that the pilots have helped Walmart generate “loads of valuable insight” into how autonomous vehicles fit within the overall business. Walmart piloted a grocery delivery test with Gatik to deliver customer online grocery orders from Walmart’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Ark., while it partnered with Postmates and Ford to initially use human-driven vehicles to deliver grocery orders in Miami-Dade County, Fla. The retailer’s Nuro pilot is located in Houston.
Given the lack of details still surrounding Walmart’s autonomous automobile delivery capabilities, it’s safe to assume that the company won’t be providing much in the way of specifics for its drone tests for quite some time.