Walmart Inc. is entering the drone delivery wars, its latest move to counter Amazon.com Inc.’s dominance in e-commerce as more Americans choose to shop from home. The world’s largest retailer said it has started piloting drone delivery of grocery and household items from its stores in Fayetteville, N.C.
The automated drones are from Israeli startup Flytrex Aviation Ltd., and can fly about 6.2 miles carrying packages up to 6.6 pounds, according to the company’s website. They take off from a landing pad near the store. The move follows Walmart’s attempt to counter Amazon’s popular Prime service with its own membership program, dubbed Walmart+, which debuts Sept. 15.
The two rivals have both acquired millions of customers during the pandemic thanks to their low prices and convenient shopping options, and the key now is to hold onto them by making it even easier to purchase the millions of everyday items they carry. Drones can reduce contact between customers and couriers, making them an increasingly popular option for businesses as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Amazon has a head start with drones, as last month it became one of only a handful of companies certified by the U.S. government to operate as a drone airline. That allows Amazon to begin its first commercial deliveries in the U.S. under a trial program, using the high-tech devices it unveiled for that purpose last year.
Flytrex’s drones are part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (IPP), which aims to bring together private-sector companies and state and local governments to test drone operations. “We know that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone,” Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president of customer products, said 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.” Walmart first mentioned that it was testing drones at an investor meeting in October 2017, and in February said that it had drones “flying around” in some of its Sam’s Club warehouse locations to help manage inventory.
It has also filed patents for systems that would help ensure safe drone drop-offs into customers’ backyards, including one for a floating blimp-style warehouse.