In a technology pilot program that could literally fly, Walmart said it would begin testing autonomous drone delivery of online orders.
The retailer said a test would begin today in Fayetteville, N.C., in partnership with Israel-based company Flytrex. According to a blog post this morning by Tom Ward, Walmart’s SVP of consumer product, the test will help Walmart "gain valuable insight into the customer and associate experience, from picking and packing to takeoff and delivery.”
Industry sources see drones as one potential solution to the high costs of last-mile fulfillment but as with autonomous delivery vehicles, adoption is likely to be gradual. Drones are subject to local and federal restrictions, may encounter limits on deliverable package weights and come with at least some safety concerns. Flytrex has established what it calls the world’s first fully operational drone delivery service in Iceland, and has since tested in North Dakota. Other retailers and delivery service providers, including Amazon, the Chinese e-tailer JD.com, UberEats and Rouses Markets, have also experimented with similar technologies.
“We know that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone,” Ward acknowledged. “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. Take for example our autonomous vehicle work with Gatik, Ford and Nuro—we’ve gained loads of valuable insight into how autonomous vehicles fit within our business.”
Flytrex drones are controlled through the cloud on what Ward described as a “smart and easy control dashboard.”
Flytrex has patented what it calls an “InAir” wire-drop system that lowers the package to the ground after the customer confirms on an associated phone application that they are in position nearby, a move Flytrext says reduces noise and improves safety.