Walmart has announced that starting today it will begin using drones to deliver COVID-19 testing kits to select customers in North Los Vegas. Service in Cheektowaga, New York will follow next month.
The big-box retailer announced last week that it began testing one-hour delivery of medical supplies through a partnership with drone delivery startup Zipline. It's also partnering with another firm, Flytrax, to test out drone delivery of groceries in North Carolina.
Others including Google and Amazon are at various stages of testing drone delivery. The latter received approval from the FAA just last month to begin commercial deliveries. Amazon has been racing to catch up to competitors in the space so it can ensure it always offers the fastest deliveries.
Early days — Besides speeding up deliveries by flying above congested streets, industry insiders believe the coronavirus pandemic presents an opportunity to demonstrate the benefit of drone delivery to allow for contactless transport of essential goods at a time when person-to-person contact should be limited.
Walmart chose its first two locations for the testing kit deliveries based on their density of single-family homes within a 1-mile radius of a Walmart Supercenter. The kits will be dropped off in either the front or backyard depending on whether or not obstacles like trees are in the way. Delivering to dense areas or apartment buildings is trickier.
How it works — Walmart's program works much like those we've seen from Google Wing and others. Eligible customers order a COVID-19 kit online or through the Walmart app, then it's prepped and placed in a bag that's attached to a drone operated by Virgina-based DroneUp. The drone is flown to its delivery spot in assistance with a human operator. The FAA doesn't allow drones to fly autonomously under most circumstances due to safety concerns. The agency hopes to develop a system for identifying drones in the sky, similar to how air traffic controllers keep track of airplanes in the sky.
Unfortunately that's where the speed and ease of this program ends. The drones cannot return kits for testing — customers need to pack up their swabs and ship them off using a prepaid shipping label. Customers will receive the testing kits for free, however.
It's an interesting idea and one that's admirable in times like these, but it's also solving a problem we sort of didn't need to have were it not for an administration in denial that coronavirus was serious.