Drone delivery was once considered science fiction. Now it has become a reality. Companies like Virginia-based DroneUp are leading the way.
Founded in 2016, DroneUp was originally conceived of as a place where drone pilots could be trained and contracted to provide services. The company operates a marketplace for people to hire drone pilots, much like Uber does for ride-sharing. One of the company’s first big tests was after Hurricane Harvey in Houston, where drones were utilized to survey the damage. After the storm, thousands of pilots signed up to be part of the company’s network and evaluate the damage around the city.
The expansion into delivery started with a pilot project. In the spring of 2020, DroneUp partnered with UPS, drone company Workhorse Group and Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology and tested drone delivery of COVID test kits. During the early days of the pandemic, people were exploring contactless ways to deliver the kits.
The pilot project took place at an abandoned college campus and showed the potential of drone delivery. The test led to more opportunities.
Working with Walmart
“Walmart caught wind of it, and we did a few proof of concepts at their store to show the capabilities for drone delivery,” said Greg James, head of business development and strategy at DroneUp.
That began a partnership with the retail giant. The two companies have been testing the capabilities of drone delivery near Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Arkansas. The companies have tested both COVID test kits and grocery delivery with drones.
Walmart was so impressed with the result, that it decided to invest in DroneUp. The retailer sees drones as a key part of its long-term, last-mile strategy. Walmart believes that drone deliveries are viable at a larger scale.
The Walmart investment and the growing demand for drone delivery have created tremendous growth at DroneUp. The company has grown from 25 to over 100 employees over the last year, and in December, the company acquired mapping company AirMap to improve logistic capabilities.
James said DroneUp is testing drone delivery capabilities in Arkansas and will soon begin rolling out the technology to other areas of the country.
“The goal was to create a company where drones are good for business, good for people and good for the planet,” James said. “I think we were not founded with delivery specifically in mind. The original intent was to kind of create a distributed pilot network or operator network across the rest of us with capabilities. We could provide drone flight services.”
The company has two sides to the business now. One is the network of independent drone pilots who do anything from surveying farmland to utility inspections. The other side of the business is delivery. James sees drone delivery working in a variety of different sectors including retail, restaurant and grocery. The challenge is creating a fully autonomous network of drones at a larger scale than is presently taking place. He says the key is safety and privacy
“I think when we can show that we can do things safely and efficiently, customers will really love it,” James said. “And the customer response has been great, especially when you can fulfill a promise where we get from point A to point B in 30 minutes or less. I think success will be defined by which kind of products you’re ordering. Whether that’s over-the-counter pharmaceuticals or food items that are available in your Walmart neighborhood market, it needs to be things that you can get quickly.”
James sees ghost kitchens and other marketplaces as one possible use of drone delivery in the food space. Rather than working with a single brand, a marketplace with multiple operators could make drone delivery more economically feasible. Orders would need to be delivered from multiple brands, creating the potential for constant use of the drone.
DroneUp is focused on educating customers and businesses about drone delivery. James said a lot of businesses that DroneUp speaks with do not understand the potential of drone delivery. They do not realize how much more efficient drone delivery is when compared to an individual driver delivering food.
“I see a world where the customer can select whether they want their delivery to come to the front door, side door or backyard,” James said. “You name it. It’s really about personalized convenience. But when we engage with the community it is always about safety, privacy and security.”
James said he is amazed at how quickly technology is changing. Each month it seems drone technology accomplishes something new, and he believes a scaled version of drone delivery will happen in the foreseeable future. A lot, he says, will depend on how the federal government regulates the airways.
“It’s about safety at the end of the day,” James said. “And so everything that goes into our work from a compliance perspective, from a safety perspective, maintenance perspective on all matters so that those regulations in the future allow for more adoption.”
He sees Walmart as a great partner for developing drone delivery technology. The company is looking at autonomous vehicles, human drivers and drones to deliver packages. It sees each of these technology playing an important role in the last mile technology “stack.”
“There are all sorts of ways this technology can fit into the delivery stack,” James said. “It’s not one or the other, but I think drones play a particular role in delivery. They are for quick, efficient delivery.”