Drone Deliveries Quietly Take Off

The FAA has yet to regulate the sector as multiple firms provide autonomous airborne last-mile services.

April 05, 2022

Drone Delivery

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Drone deliveries have been quietly rolling out, reports the Wall Street Journal. Walmart launched drone delivery with Zipline in Arkansas last year, while Flytrex, an Israeli startup focused on food delivery in the U.S. suburbs, just announced a new delivery station in Texas after two years of testing in North Carolina. Wing by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is increasing deliveries in Virginia.

Those in favor of drone delivery say it could reduce emissions, costs and traffic, but U.S. regulators are concerned that an airspace crowded with drones could interfere with air travel or crash and cause injury to humans. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials say the agency is developing regulations for solo drone delivery—drones are currently allowed if controlled or monitored by a person.

Zipline built its first commercial delivery station in the U.S. in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, near Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Customers can expect a delivery via drone in 15 to 30 minutes. There’s no delivery fee, and the drops are accurate to the space of a “a couple of parking spaces,” says Zipline. At full capacity, Zipline’s aircraft can service a 50-mile radius, nearly the size of the state of Connecticut.

One objection to drone delivery is the noise a typical multi-rotor drone makes, but Zipline’s drones are completely silent, according to Pea Ridge Mayor Jackie Crabtree.

Zipline has permission from the FAA, which is a lengthy certification process, with the FAA approving each new drone delivery project individually. Currently, a human monitors Zipline’s deliveries, but a company spokesman told the Journal that Zipline is working toward certifications that would allow its drones to operate beyond visual line of sight.

Flytrex is making deliveries from a Walmart store in North Carolina, and it’s recently launched service in Granbury, Texas, near Fort Worth, offering delivery in partnership with Brinker International, owner of the Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant chains. The drones can handle up to six pounds of food, and Brinker’s head of innovation Wade Allen told the Journal that using drones in Granbury has cut many delivery times in half and is significantly cheaper than partnering with a ground-based food delivery service.

Amazon has been quieter about its drone delivery service, but Business Insider has reported that Amazon will launch commercial tests of drone delivery service in California and Texas, delivering items under five pounds. Amazon’s drone goals include 145 drone launch stations and delivery of 500 million packages by drone a year, according to the documents obtained by Insider.

Alphabet’s drone delivery service, Wing, has been operating in Christiansburg, Virginia, since 2019, delivering items including coffee, meals and Girl Scout cookies, and it’s been testing even longer in Australia, completing 200,000 deliveries as of March 1. It took Wing more than two and a half years to make its first 100,000 deliveries and six months to make its second 100,000, a company spokesman told the Journal.

Wing’s drones are lightweight at 10 pounds (the lightest among the companies seeking FAA approval for delivery), and they are designed to be fragile, so if they crash, they would cause little or no harm.

In Virginia, Wing delivers good from a central hub, but the company is launching in Frisco and Little Elm, Texas, and will deliver directly from Walgreens. The drone would hover over a Walgreens employee, lower a hook to an aerodynamic cardboard package containing a customer’s order—up to 3.3 pounds—attach to the package and then fly autonomously.

In February, the FAA said it would start testing an air-traffic control system just for unmanned aircraft that stay below 400 feet. The FAA has plans for safely enabling fully autonomous drone delivery across the U.S., but the Journal reports that for autonomous flight operation system standards, they must first be developed in partnership with drone companies and traditional aerospace firms and then tested in the real world, which is time consuming and why drone delivery is taking so long to happen, Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash told the Journal.

“It’s a very different mindset with the FAA than it was a year ago,” Bash told the Journal. “Their approach has always been, crawl, walk, run—hopefully we are now getting to the walk part.”