The Pandemic May Finally Make Drone Delivery a Reality

When it comes to ecommerce, one of the biggest problems that retailers have struggled to solve is the “last mile.” This is the final leg of a product’s delivery journey, when it leaves a distribution center to reach the consumer’s home. This is often the costliest and most logistically difficult part of delivery, and it’s even more critical now that nearly every retailer is competing to offer the fastest shipping. For the past few years, ecommerce leaders have toyed with the idea of using drones to mitigate some of these labor costs, improve tracking capabilities, increase mobility, and, most importantly, optimize speed. Now that the pandemic has had such a dramatic impact on ecommerce sales and customers want to minimize contact with delivery workers, drone technology might finally become a reality for retailers.

Walmart is currently piloting three different drone delivery programs – one aimed at getting COVID-19 tests to customers, another to deliver “select grocery and household essentials,” and a third to ship health and wellness products. The coronavirus testing program is the most recent one to be announced by the retailer and is the result of a three-way partnership between Walmart, laboratory testing provider Quest Diagnostics™, and drone manufacturer DroneUp.

Fayetteville North Carolina, Cheektowaga New York, and Las Vegas Nevada are among the areas that Walmart has announced will be part of the pilot programs. Walmart’s biggest competitor, Amazon, has also just received approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to launch their own fleet of drones known as Prime Air. If the program is successful, a wide rollout could mean Amazon’s shortest delivery times to date. David Carbon, vice president of Prime Air, has said that “we will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.”

Non-retailers are also preparing drone technology in the hopes of scoring potential delivery partnerships with businesses looking to expand their ecommerce and takeout offerings. Within the past year, Uber unveiled their own drone plans as part of their future strategy for Uber Eats, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is testing out a drone collaboration with Walgreens. UPS also has a similar partnership with CVS, and the two began a pilot program to deliver prescriptions to Florida retirees via drones in early May.

Retailers have been talking about the opportunities promised by drone technology for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added a whole new layer of urgency. Before, delivery drones were considered to be a novel innovation that could provide more convenience for consumers and cost savings for retailers. Now that vulnerable shoppers need contactless ways to get essential items and consumers across the board are turning to ecommerce for their regular shopping, delivery drones might finally move from an exciting concept to our everyday reality.

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