Walmart and Zipline, a drone delivery business, are establishing a delivery service in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, which will be Zipline’s first commercial drone delivery service in the United States. Customers will have access to “thousands of products,” but only health and wellness items such as “over-the-counter allergy medication, bandages, and ibuprofen” will be available.
The project’s debut demonstrates that there is still faith in drones’ ability to make commercial deliveries. However, given the technology’s slow adoption (Walmart first tried drone deliveries in 2015) and the lack of large-scale implementations (the Pea Ridge service only covers a 50-mile radius), there are still many questions to be answered before drone deliveries become commonplace for regular consumers.
Zipline has largely demonstrated its worth in the healthcare industry to date, transporting medical supplies in North Carolina, blood in Rwanda, and COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana. The economics of delivery are better suited to the technological expenses in this case. Vaccines and blood samples are small, important items that benefit from prompt delivery. Zipline’s first commercial partner is Walmart, but it’s unclear whether the economics of drone delivery are as compelling for customers looking for on-demand diapers and non-prescription medication.
Drones could help Walmart fill gaps in its distribution network, particularly in rural areas where traditional infrastructure is lacking. Drones, of course, don’t require roads or highways, while Zipline’s planes deliver via parachute, eliminating the need for consumers to set up specified landing zones. (This is one of the stumbling blocks to Amazon’s drone delivery goals, according to reports.) Of course, there are other obstacles, such as regulatory ones, but Zipline was given a waiver of certain FAA drone restrictions earlier this year, paving the path for the Walmart deal.
Residents of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, who wish to try out Zipline’s drone delivery service must first download the Zipline app. If they’re “eligible,” they can place an order and pay for their things there, but we’re not clear what that term means. According to The Verge, access will begin with “a hand-selected group of clients,” and that “Zipline and Walmart will swiftly work to expand to additional customers in the greater NWA region, subject to FAA approvals” following the launch. But that isn’t much of a help. It appears that drone deliveries are still taking longer than expected.