Walmart drone delivery project taps Zipline as another partner

Rather than follow Amazon’s lead with its own in-house drone delivery team, Walmart has partnered with arguably the largest drone delivery company out there to help test aerial package deliveries. While the retail giant has dabbled in drone delivery with other partnerships in the past (and still has other drone delivery projects ongoing, including one with DroneUp), the latest Walmart drone delivery partner is Zipline.

Zipline is largely considered the largest drone delivery provider out there, recently crossed the 200,000-delivery milestone. That’s double the amount of drone deliveries made by Google-sister company Wing, which this year crossed the significant 100,000-delivery milestone.

But with the Walmart drone delivery partnership, Zipline marks its first commercial deliveries in the U.S. — as the company has largely been operating in developing countries primarily in Africa. The deliveries will happen just down the road from Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas.

How will the Walmart drone delivery tests with Zipline work?

The tests are will be contained to a relatively small area of Arkansas in the city of Pea Ridge, which has an estimated population of less than 7,000. But for those lucky (relatively) few, most residents will be able to get on-demand deliveries of select health and wellness and consumable items from the city’s Walmart Neighborhood Market.

Zipline says that the selection of such a small city to test its deliveries in demonstrates Zipline’s power in delivering necessary goods to hard-to-reach and at-risk populations, such as rural communities and elderly customers.

As far as the deliveries themselves, they’ll fly off from a 25-foot platform located directly behind the Pea Ridge Walmart Neighborhood Market. That platform serves as a take-off and landing pad for Zipline’s drones, which are fixed-wing drones, which are more like an airplane in style as opposed to a quadcopter that functions more like a helicopter and can take off vertically. The drones will be operated by Zipline — rather than Walmart — staff.

Fixed-wing drones can typically fly further distances than quadcopters, and Zipline says its aircraft can service a 50-mile radius at full capacity (that’s nearly the size of the state of Connecticut).

If you’re an eligible customer, then here’s what you need to do:

  1. Open the Zipline app (the web app is only available to select customers in Pea Ridge at the moment, so you won’t find it in the Apple App Store).
  2. Order the products you want delivered.
  3. Selects a delivery time at checkout.
  4. Behind the scenes, a Walmart employee will pick and pack your order and hands the package off to Zipline staff, who prepares the drone for launch. Meanwhile, you can track the status of your item and the drone through the Zipline app.
  5. The drone will fly to your home, delivering the package through a slow drop system.
  6. The drone then flies back to Walmart.

Zipline began operations back in 2016 and says it has shipped more than 4.5 million units of medical supplies to more than 20 million people across multiple countries. The company primarily operated in rural parts of a few countries in Africa, with plans to soon launch operations in Japan and Nigeria. But this year marks a turning of attention to the U.S. Earlier this month, Zipline announced plans to deliver prescriptions and other healthcare products to people’s homes in the Salt Lake City area through a partnership with Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare.

“We’ve seen firsthand the impact that instant logistics can have in making important, even life saving products, available on a moment’s notice,” said Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. “At the same time, the past two years have proven the need to bring health products closer to home, where they are more accessible. Working with Walmart, we’re able to bring this type of service to Northwest Arkansas, showcasing what the future of health access looks like.”

What’s next for Walmart drone delivery?

For now, Walmart is starting with a select group of customers in Pea Ridge, Arknasas, but Zipline said it intends to expand along with FAA approvals.

Expansion will come in the form of more delivery areas, as well as more health and wellness, or other consumable products, including diapers, thermometers, and baby food. Zipline said customers should expect to receive packages under 5 lbs, delivered on-demand in 15-30 minutes.

The news comes at a time when Walmart is looking to scale its delivery network. Beyond drone delivery, Walmart has tapped third-party delivery providers, service providers on the Spark Driver platform, as well as hiring its own associate delivery drivers. Beyond drones, Walmart has also turned to technology like self-driving cars to improve deliveries.

And it’s also worth noting that this is not Walmart’s first foray into drones. Earlier this year, Walmart announced an investment of an undisclosed sum in drone service provider DroneUp. Along with it came plans that it would conduct drone deliveries of goods to homes in Walmart’s own hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas via DroneUp. That project is ongoing. In fact, the two companies earlier this week announced today the first multi-site commercial drone delivery operations. All three locations are Northwest Arkansas and operate 7 days a week during most daylight hours, and can deliver items via drone to eligible Walmart customers by air in as little as 30 minutes.

And prior to that, Walmart worked with DroneUp to launch trial deliveries of at-home COVID-19 self-collection kits in the North Las Vegas-area. That short-lived trial was available to residents of single-family homes located within a 1-mile radius of the North Las Vegas Walmart.

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