Sustainability Driving Walmart's Drone Interest

Sustainability Driving Walmart's Drone Interest
Walmart plans to expand its DroneUp delivery network to 34 sites in six states.

Concerns for environmental sustainability drive Walmart Inc.’s recent expansion of drone delivery, said Camille Dunn, a spokeswoman for the Bentonville retailer. But convenience is another factor. Drones can deliver orders in 30 minutes or less.

Walmart has partnered with three drone companies during the last three years, and in May it announced plans to expand its DroneUp delivery network to 34 sites across six states by the end of the year. Carl Smit, chief strategy officer for DroneUp, based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, told Arkansas Business late last month that that number would increase, though he couldn’t disclose a specific number.

Dunn said drones are the sustainable option for package delivery within the “last mile.” That last mile accounts for 53% of delivery costs and is often hard on the environment, Smit said.

Walmart’s network of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores means it’s already within a short distance of the vast majority of the U.S. population. And drone deliveries can cut down on airplane and trucking emissions as well as last-mile vehicle deliveries, Smit said, adding that the boom of e-commerce, fueled by the pandemic, has led to a lot more vehicles on the road.

“We’re reaching a tipping point in a lot of areas where these extra vehicles on the road are creating a lot more traffic,” Smit said. “There’s a lot of emissions that come with that traffic, especially when cars are sitting.” 

Drones “solve a big piece of the problem,” Smit said. Although they can’t deliver a kayak, they can do fast deliveries and they can do small deliveries, the kind, Smit said, that make up 80% of all e-commerce purchases, “so there’s a lot of potential” for affecting the environment. 

Walmart has pledged to reach zero emissions by 2040, so the retail giant has to look at last-mile delivery through a sustainable lens, Dunn said. The drones are battery powered, and batteries are replaced before every flight. 

“It’s going to take removing all of those emissions from that ecosystem, not only from last-mile delivery, but also from our broader transportation fleet and network to focus on achieving that goal,” Dunn said. “And so as we build out that last-mile delivery network, it’s really important for us that we’re doing so with the lens of sustainability and opting for those electric alternatives where we can.”

(In July, Walmart announced an agreement to purchase 4,500 electric vehicles from Canoo Inc. to be used for final-mile deliveries. The five-year agreement gives Walmart the option to purchase up to 10,000 vehicles from Canoo, which is moving its headquarters and a production facility to Bentonville.) 

There is also the fun factor involved in drone deliveries. Dunn said some Walmart customers purposely order when they’re home so they can watch and even film delivery. That is accomplished when the drone’s patented release mechanism rapidly drops the package from 80 feet via cable, slowing as it gets closer to the ground, and then gently releasing the package upon landing.

Pushing the Envelope

In December 2021, DroneUp acquired AirMap, an airspace management software systems company, which allows DroneUp to dynamically adjust flight patterns.

The definition of efficiency varies per flight, whether it involves avoiding no-fly zones or flying anywhere between 80 and 200 feet high to minimize noise and obstacles. Birds can be troublesome, but Smit said technology is in the works to detect them.

The company is already working on its second and third generation of drones, which will have greater wind, temperature and precipitation tolerance. Smit said DroneUp is going to continue to “push the envelope” in just about every aspect of the technology.

“The approach we’ve taken … has enabled us to move further, faster and more economically for Walmart, which obviously Walmart cares very deeply about saving money to the customer.”

Dunn echoed that concern. “We don’t use technology for the sake of technology,” Dunn said, stating that drones are “really cool right now and rightly so” but if it weren’t for customers having a need, the company would not have committed to their use. 

“It all comes down to being able to serve them,” she said of customers.

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