Mar 20, 2024 - Technology

Drone delivery's biggest problem isn't in the air

Behind the scenes as a drone delivery is loaded for transit. Video: Gregory Castillo/Axios

Behind the scenes as a drone delivery is loaded for transit. Video: Gregory Castillo/Axios

Getting a carton of eggs delivered flawlessly by drone is impressive — in fact, it's downright miraculous! — but behind the scenes there are still a lot of inefficiencies to work out.

Why it matters: Drone delivery isn't a fantasy anymore. It's already happening in certain neighborhoods near Dallas, Salt Lake City, Tampa and Phoenix, among others. And it's going to expand in a huge way starting this year.

State of play: The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is emerging as the drone delivery capital of America, thanks largely to Walmart, which plans to make the service widely available to 1.8 million Dallas-area residents by the end of 2024.

  • Axios recently tried two of Walmart's partner services, Wing and DroneUp, to see what drone delivery is like.
  • None of Axios Dallas' journalists live within Walmart's current drone delivery zones, so we had to settle for delivery at nearby demo locations.
  • Both companies operate from a cordoned-off area of the parking lot at their respective Walmart stores in Frisco and Garland.
  • Wing's operation seemed more advanced than DroneUp's, and they use different types of drones, which affects their status with the FAA.
  • Still, both operators showed room for improvement.

Zoom in: We used a smartphone to place separate orders for a carton of eggs and a Dr. Pepper on Wing's Walmart delivery app.

  • When the orders popped up on a Wing employee's tablet, that employee sent a colleague into the store to pick the items from the shelves and pay for them at self-checkout.
  • Then, on a folding table near the exit, a Wing employee placed the items inside two specially designed cardboard containers about the size of a McDonald's Happy Meal box, weighed them and labeled them with a Sharpie marker before carrying them back to the parking lot.

How it works: Wing's "Nest" takes up about 20 parking spots in the Walmart lot.

  • It's a fenced-in area with a generator, a small trailer and 18 charging pads on the ground, each with a lightweight drone resting on it.
  • When an order is placed, Wing's flight navigation system automatically assigns a drone and generates a flight plan to the delivery spot, taking into account geography, weather and air traffic.
  • The assigned drone's propellers start automatically, and the drone rises up about 25 feet, hovering over the Nest while the employee, wearing a hard hat, attaches the package to a tether.
  • The drone recoils the tether, secures the package to the belly of the aircraft, then rises to a cruising altitude of up to 400 feet before departing.

Behind the scenes: A "pilot in command" oversees the flight on a computer screen from a remote operations center miles away in downtown Dallas.

  • The operator doesn't "fly" the drone, which is fully autonomous.
  • Instead, they monitor multiple flights simultaneously across entire regions.

When the drone arrives at its destination, it hovers at about 25 feet, then lowers the tethered package gently to the ground.

  • The clip releases automatically, the tether recoils, and the drone ascends and flies away.

Our thought bubble: While the delivery itself takes only a few minutes, the process needs streamlining on the back end — which is why Walmart tells people to expect 30 minutes.

  • For starters, drone delivery service is not yet integrated into Walmart's e-commerce site, so users need to switch to the drone company's site to place their order.
  • By later this year, it should be a one-click process on Walmart's site, the retailer tells Axios.

What's next: Drone delivery companies are working on new ground-based infrastructure to streamline order pickup and delivery.

  • Wing, for example, introduced a new Autoloader contraption on a pole as an alternative to curbside pickup.
  • Zipline's next-generation delivery drone takes off from and lands on a charging pad affixed to the side of a building. It includes a tethered droid that drops down a chute so workers can load a customer's order without leaving the store.
  • At last week's SXSW, DroneUp founder and CEO Tom Walker teased a new automated pickup and delivery hub it plans to introduce soon.

The bottom line: The future of drone delivery is here, but still needs some tweaking.

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