Walmart and drone delivery company Zipline are launching a delivery service in Pea Ridge, Arkansas — the first commercial drone delivery service offered by Zipline in the US. Customers will be able to choose from “thousands of products,” though are restricted to health and wellness items like “over the counter allergy medicine, bandages, ibuprofen.”
The project’s launch shows there’s continuing belief in the potential of drones to perform commercial deliveries. But the technology’s slow rate of adoption (Walmart first tested drone deliveries back in 2015) and the lack of large-scale implementations (the Pea Ridge service only covers a 50-mile radius) also shows there are plenty of questions to be answered if drone deliveries are to become commonplace for regular consumers.
To date, Zipline has mostly proven its mettle in healthcare, delivering medical supplies in North Carolina, blood in Rwanda, and COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana. Here, the economics of deliveries are better suited to the expenses of the technology. Vaccines and blood samples are small, valuable, and benefit greatly from speedy delivery. Walmart is Zipline’s first commercial partner, and it’s not clear if the economics of drone delivery are as convincing for customers who want on-demand diapers and non-prescription medication.
For Walmart, drones may help it plug gaps in its delivery network, particularly in rural communities that aren’t well served by traditional infrastructure. Drones, of course, don’t need roads or highways, and Zipline’s aircraft make delivery by parachute, avoiding the need for customers to have designated landing zones. (This is one of the challenges that has reportedly stymied Amazon’s drone delivery ambitions.) There are other hurdles, of course, including regulatory ones, though Zipline was granted a waiver of certain FAA restrictions on drones earlier this year, which cleared the way for the Walmart partnership.
Residents in Pea Ridge, Arkansas who want to test out the drone delivery service will need to download Zipline’s app to do so. There they can place an order and pay for their items if they’re “eligible,” though we’re not quite sure what is meant by this term. Zipline told The Verge that access will start with “a hand-selected group of recipients,” and that following the launch, “Zipline and Walmart will quickly work to expand to additional customers in the broader NWA region, subject to FAA approvals.” But that doesn’t offer much help. It seems drone deliveries are still not arriving as fast as hoped.