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Walmart Delivery Drones Take To The Sky

Walmart is planning to launch a test of drone delivery in a limited area near the company's headquarters in northwest Arkansas. For now, the program will use drones to deliver various health and wellness products within a 50-mile radius of the HQ, but the retail giant says the system has the potential to expand to other sorts of merchandise.

The company has inked a deal with drone specialist Zipline to facilitate deliveries. Zipline drones fly to predetermined destinations and drop packages attached to parachutes. The drone releases its payload based on real-time wind data, with a goal of floating the package precisely to its recipient, the company says.

San Francisco-based Zipline is best known for delivering medical supplies in recent years via its drones to places in rural Rwanda, whose road network is poor, which precludes easy delivery by more conventional vehicles. Since the company began its operations in that country in 2016, Zipline has delivered more than 200,000 shipments of medical products there and elsewhere in Africa.

Each of the Rwandan drones is capable of carrying about three-and-a-half pounds of medical supplies, flying at speeds of nearly 80 mph, according to Zipline. It isn't clear yet how much an average payload will be when flying for Walmart, based on Walmart's announcement of the deal with Zipline, nor did the retailer say how much the service will cost package recipients.

The tech Zipline uses in its drones includes a system that keeps its GPS always connected, even when the aircraft is waiting on the ground, as well as a rail fitted with a pulley and an electric motor used to launch the drone skyward at a speed fast enough for it to fly, and a system to capture returning drones. Each of those systems saves time during the preparation to launch.

“We are using an active recovery system that ... takes inspiration from an aircraft carrier,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told CNBC. “We ... can pluck it out of the air, then basically swing it down so that flight operators can immediately grab it, load a new package, and launch it again.”

Earlier this year, spurred by pandemic-related stress on the U.S. healthcare system, the Federal Aviation Administration granted an emergency waiver to its drone rules that allowed Zipline to run flights for North Carolina-based Novant Health, IEEE Spectrum reports.

The goal in that case is for Novant to connect a health distribution center with one of the health system's hospitals. Because of the distance between those two points, and the configuration of local roads, delivery by drone is quicker than by road.

Zipline is part of an emerging drone network in the United States to deliver goods, though it has been slower to develop than boosters hoped. Still, late in 2019, the FAA approved UPS' application to expand its small drone delivery service pilot programs into a much larger network.

Immediately after FAA approval, UPS delivered medical supplies to WakeMed hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, using a Matternet drone. UPS thus became the first drone operator to deliver to a paying customer outside of line of sight, Tech Crunch reports. In almost all cases — except where the FAA has issued waivers — drones need to remain within sight of their operators.