Walmart is getting closer to delivering cough drops 50 miles away by drone

Walmart’s newest drone initiative is ready for takeoff.

America’s largest retailer has been toying with drones for more than six years—and now its deliveries will extend further than ever before.

In partnership with California-based drone company Zipline, Walmart will begin using drones to transport items like cough medicine, thermometers, or other health products to its customers within a 50-mile radius of a store in Pea Ridge, Ark.—the first step of an operation it hopes will eventually make its products more widely accessible in the U.S.

“Drones can help break down barriers to on-demand access by reaching historically difficult delivery locations, such as rural communities,” a Walmart spokeswoman says.

The companies plan to start small—with only a handful of customers close to its Northwest Arkansas distribution site and a fleet of just five Zipline drones. But after Zipline receives federal approval to regularly fly its miniature aircraft over people and at night, it will gradually expand those numbers and distance. Zipline anticipates getting that certification within the next four months, a company spokesman says.

Here’s how it works: A Walmart customer opens the Zipline app, places an order, and sets a time for delivery. Then a Walmart store employee packs the products into a blue-branded box and hands it off to Zipline, which has set up a launchpad behind a Walmart in the tiny town of Pea Ridge, Ark. Zipline staffers then pack the box into the underbelly of the drone, which takes off and eventually drops the box, tethered to a mini-parachute, into the customer’s front or back yard.

All in all, Walmart expects the deliveries to take 30 to 45 minutes.

Jessica Mathews – Fortune

Walmart has been testing using drone technology in its everyday operations for quite some time. In 2015, it applied with the Federal Aviation Administration to test grocery deliveries. Around that time it was also considering how to use drone technology to track inventory more efficiently in its own distribution centers. But the company later pivoted, abandoning its own initiatives in favor of partnering with drone companies. It has since experimented with three different drone vendors—Flytrex, DroneUp, and Zipline—in North Dakota and North Carolina, and Las Vegas and Cheektowaga, NY. Later this month, Walmart plans to add a new drone delivery hub in Farmington, Ark., where it will make deliveries within a one-mile radius under an FAA waiver. 

But Walmart’s operation with Zipline in Pea Ridge will eventually allow the company much greater range than it had before, as the limit to its other current initiatives is one mile. When operations are given clearance to expand, Zipline will be delivering Walmart’s orders within a zone that’s larger than the state of Connecticut, according to Zipline’s CEO, Keller Rinaudo.

“It’s like 10 times as fast as using traditional logistics,” Rinaudo says—besides being more cost-effective and better for the environment, he adds. 

For Zipline, this is its first commercial drone site in the U.S. It has 11 other distribution sites worldwide, primarily in Ghana and Rwanda, where it has spent the last five years making more than 215,000 medical supply, vaccine, and blood deliveries. The company plans to expand into Japan next year.

For now, Walmart will deliver health and wellness goods via Zipline drones, although it may eventually expand into other products as well.

Slow regulatory developments in the U.S. have made it challenging for companies like Zipline, Amazon, Alphabet, and UPS to grow their operations locally. The FAA is currently working on rules that would let companies regularly fly their drones without an individual having to watch the aircraft during the entirety of its flight. Right now, companies like Zipline need waivers to do so, which can be difficult and take a long time to attain, and which has become a major hurdle to widespread drone delivery.

But companies are making headway, albeit slowly, at getting their drone delivery projects started. As for now, no one should count on receiving this year’s Christmas gifts via drone.

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