Mar 26, 2024 - Technology

Scoop: Walmart, 7-11, Chick-fil-A pilot new drone delivery tech

Side-by-side images of an automated drone delivery hub called DBX and a man place a box inside the hub

DroneUp's automated DBX system takes the labor out of drone delivery. Photo courtesy of DroneUp

Walmart, 7-Eleven and Chick-fil-A will be the first retailers to pilot new technology from a Virginia startup trying to solve drone delivery's ground logistics problems, Axios is first to report.

Why it matters: Getting a drone to deliver a hot chicken sandwich or a cold Slurpee in a matter of minutes depends a lot more on what happens on the ground than what occurs in the sky.

Driving the news: A company called DroneUp, partially owned by Walmart, on Tuesday unveiled a proprietary autonomous drone "ecosystem" that its CEO says will revolutionize last-mile logistics.

  • It includes an automated, climate-controlled storage locker called DBX where drones can pick up and drop off packages.
  • The system's software enables "end-to-end autonomy," meaning drones automatically know where to go and when — and how to avoid other aircraft. (Humans are still in the loop, but now a single operator can monitor many drones instead of flying just one.)
  • The company is also introducing a more advanced drone that travels 60 mph, has a 30-mile range, and uses a claw-like grabber to lift packages up to 10 pounds and store them safely inside its belly.

How it works: A participating retailer or restaurant affixes a bar code label to a customer's order.

  • Workers scan the barcode to open the DBX locker and place the package inside.
  • Robotic equipment in the locker weighs the package, checks the center of gravity and places it on a shelf to await pickup.

Meanwhile, a drone is automatically dispatched to the landing pad on top of the DBX to pick up the package — if it's not already there, recharging on the built-in pad.

  • The robot inside the DBX picks the package off the shelf and uses a patented winch to auto-load it into the drone, which then flies to the delivery destination.
  • The DBX is smaller than a single parking space and can be placed at a strip mall, opening up access even to mom-and-pop stores.

Zoom in: The DBX can also serve as a delivery hub on college campuses or in cities, making drone delivery possible for people who live in harder-to-reach areas.

  • Customers' packages can be delivered to and securely stored inside a climate-controlled locker until they use a code or CLEAR's verification system to unlock it.
  • Shoppers can also use DBX to return orders via drone.

What they're saying: Combining "flying robots" with ground-based automation will dramatically lower the cost of last-mile delivery, CEO Tom Walker tells Axios.

  • Drone delivery today is prohibitively expensive, at $38 per trip, Walker says — but nearly 80% of that cost is tied to labor.
  • "When we put in a DBX, all that labor cost comes out. So overnight, my delivery cost goes from $38 to sub-$10. I'm now competitive with every other last-mile provider, but I'm faster and more reliable."

Between the lines: The system solves problems on both ends of the delivery process, Walker says.

  • "We're going to democratize the airspace," he adds.
  • "You could be Joe's Tailor Shop and you can have access to this for the same price that a Walmart has access to it. All you have to do is print out the barcode and put the barcode on the package."

What to watch: DroneUp will begin rolling out the DBX ecosystem in select markets starting this year.

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