22. June 2022 | Retail Technology, ReTell, Visions of Retail

What is the latest news on package delivery via drone?

From Katja Laska (exclusivly for EuroCIS.mag)

Last—mile delivery via drones – an idea that has been buzzing around for several years with many tested designs marking the way. Some of these ideas now seem to take off as two retail giants are going head-to-head.

All beginnings are difficult

Almost a decade ago, Amazon had announced its customers could soon order packages to be delivered by drones, though the idea remained a pipe dream. But now it seems the wait is over, and the retail giant is taking off. A few days ago, Amazon officials said, “The promise of drone delivery has often felt like science fiction. We’ve been working for almost a decade to make it a reality. Amazon customers in Lockeford, California, will be among the first to receive Prime Air drone deliveries in the U.S.” Residents will soon be able to place an order and receive an estimated arrival time with a status tracker. To make deliveries, the drone – the MK27B featuring a hexagonal design and six propellers and motors – flies to the delivery location, descends into the customer’s backyard, and hovers at a safe height. The drone then safely releases the package, rises back up to altitude and flies away.

To make all this a reality and to expand the delivery network by covering a larger area and supplying communities in the shortest possible time in the future, teams of hundreds of engineers, aerospace professionals, and futurists have been working hard. Here is what makes the drone delivery service so unique: “We’ve created a sophisticated and industry-leading sense-and-avoid system that will enable operations without visual observers and allow our drone to operate at greater distances while safely and reliably avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles,” the company announced in an official statement.

The goal is to expand the delivery zone and cover a larger radius. During development, the team of experts focused on two main safety scenarios: to be safe when goods are in transit, and to be safe when they are approaching the ground. Hence, the drones were equipped with special technologies for speedy and reliable object detection. The aerial vehicles can identify obstacles in their path, including a chimney or moving objects, like other aircrafts that might be hard to detect with the human eye. If the drone detects an obstacle in its path, it will automatically change course. As it descends to deliver the package, the drone makes sure there is a small area around the delivery location that’s clear of people, animals, or other obstacles. Amazon is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local officials in Lockeford to obtain permission to conduct these deliveries. It is not entirely clear whether permission has already been granted at this point. The company plans to start delivery drone operations by the end of this year.

Off to a running start

The retail chain Walmart is one step ahead and likewise plans to continue to expand its delivery operations by the end of the year: “Today we’re announcing we’ll be expanding our DroneUp delivery network to 34 sites by the end the year, providing the potential to reach 4 million U.S. households across six states – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah and Virginia. This provides us the ability to deliver over 1 million packages by drone in a year,” David Guggina, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Automation for Walmart U.S., wrote in a blog post on the company’s website.

This means the American retail chain wins the first round against Amazon, since it is the first to offer this service. Within the usual business hours of 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., customers will be able to order diapers, hot dog buns and other household items, for delivery by air in 30 minutes or less. Shoppers can order items totaling up to 10 pounds for a delivery fee of $3.99. Walmart initially intended the DroneUp hubs for delivery of emergency items, but quickly learned that shoppers use the service more frequently as a convenient shopping option. The retailer subsequently equipped more stores with the so-called DroneUp delivery hubs featuring on-site, certified pilots operating within FAA guidelines to safely manage flight operations. Once a customer places an order, the item is fulfilled from the store, packaged, loaded into the drone, and delivered straight into the customer’s yard or driveway using a cable that gently lowers the package. But the drones deliver more than just Walmart packages. Walmart also gives the communities it serves access to the drone infrastructure. That means local businesses can benefit as well. For example, a local construction agency can work with DroneUp to monitor on-site job progress through aerial drone footage.

Taking off in other countries

The U.S. is not the only country that works hard to conquer the retail airspace. Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, is the world’s first on-demand drone delivery service serving homes and businesses. Following the success of its store-to-door model, which launches deliveries straight from the rooftop of the Grand Plaza shopping center in Logan City, Australia, Wing is now also taking to Europe’s skies. In Finland’s capital Helsinki, the company is partnering with the Columbus Shopping Centre. The Wing office is located on the – otherwise unused – top of the shopping center parking structure, where drones take off to deliver orders. Now even more densely populated areas like Vuosaari, Marjaniemi, and Puotila can receive their grocery deliveries via drone Wednesday through Sunday. But they are not the only ones who get to enjoy the service. Wing will also deliver to public picnic spots located in Uutela canal, Lilla Kallvik and Mustankivenpuisto parks in Helsinki, allowing customers who may not live in the immediate delivery area to likewise enjoy the service on Saturdays and Sundays.

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