For years drone makers have been heralding how the technology can help the retailer struggling with faster and more efficient delivery.
Consumers want it and retailers are working to make it happen.
Back in 2020, Walmart announced it was partnering with drone delivery service Zipline to provide on-demand health and wellness product deliveries. The plan, according to a CNBC report, is to expand and offer all general merchandise via drone delivery. It was the second drone announcement for Walmart in September of that year. The first was a pilot project with Flytrex for grocery and house products.
"We'll never stop looking into and learning about what the next best technology is and how we can use it to better serve our customers now and into the future," Tom Ward, Walmart senior vice president of customer product, said in a press statement.
In January 2021 the Federal Aviation Administration began releasing rules that will allow drone activity at night and over residential areas.
"The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our air space by addressing safety and security concerns," FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in a statement. "They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages."
This past April, Alphabet, parent company of Google, launched drone delivery in Dallas-Fort Worth. It marked the company's first drone delivery effort in a major U.S. city, according to an Engadget report.
"With this service, the DFW area will be the largest metro in the world, and the first in the United States, with access to on-demand drone delivery," a company spokesperson said in an email statement to the news outlet The prime customer is Walgreens, and drones will be staged at store parking lots. The service will also deliver ice cream, Easyvet pet medications and first aid kits, according to the news report.
In May Walmart, in a partnership with DroneUp, announced it was expanding its drone delivery network to 34 sites across six states this year. The expansion will provide the service to 4 million U.S. households and a capability to deliver over 1 million items within the year, according to a Walmart blog post.
A month later Amazon declared it was launching drone delivery in California, marking the retailer's first drone debut in the U.S. The news came almost 10 years after Amazon first announced it would tap drones for delivery. Amazon launched drone delivery nine years ago in England and got FAA approval two years ago for U.S. deployment, according to a WSJ report.
With each and every drone strategy the retailers are banking on a big bet — that consumers will embrace drone delivery. And so far their expectations are being met.
Consumer love for the drone
Nearly half, 48%, of consumers are willing to pay more money for drone delivery if it means getting items in an hour, according to a Smarty survey in late May.
A more recent survey, from Auterion in July that polled more than 1,000 U.S. consumers, a solid majority of Americans, 58%, favor drone deliveries and even more, 64%, think drones will be an option for home delivery in the very near future. Nearly half of those polled, 47%, said they would make a purchase from a specific retailer due to the option of a drone delivery program.
Basically Americans are getting ready to integrate drone delivery into the list of options available via retail purchases — 32% think it's possible now or within one to two years, 18% project three to four years and 14% expect drones dropping packages in five to 10 years.
Yet there is still a sizeable number, 36%, who remain doubtful about drone delivery, citing potential government disapproval and public outcry. And 16% don't want drone delivery to be any sort of option.
But Lorenz Meier, co-founder and CEO of Auterion, expects that doubtful population to quickly decrease, noting that drone delivery has been part of the retailer delivery dialogue as early as 2016 given Amazon's Prime Air exploring the concept. Auterion builds open source software for mobile robotics and drone manufacturers.
"Since then the technology required to make it become a reality has matured alongside an increasingly positive public perception of the concept. Americans are more ready for drones to deliver their packages than ever before, and retailers that adopt and scale drone delivery programs will find themselves ahead of the curve. Cargo is the first instance where most people will directly experience the power of air mobility and autonomous systems — where drones will become a tangible, everyday reality," he told Retail Customer Experience in an email interview.
Challenges in play
The big challenges identified early on, according to Meier, are being solved in fast fashion.
"Cargo drones are now able to understand the environment with precision, to communicate through control software in a common language and to predict safe landing spots in real time for fast package delivery, which addresses past technological challenges with drone delivery. However, regulation is lagging the pace of technology," he said.
There are also big moves being made regarding airspace and requirements such as the implementation of remote ID, an electronic license plate for drones and greater transparency as well as a foundation for proper connectivity and airspace awareness.
"These single steps help with more, deeper and very safe airspace integration, which will accelerate the ease of deploying drone delivery networks for retail delivery," said Meier. "In order for all this data and information exchange for the many different entities to properly communicate and connect with each other, it needs an interface and unified software platform."
While consumer love is growing retailers still face some obstacles with a drone delivery strategy. But those issues, said Meier, will be solved as well in the near future.
"We see the acceleration of retailers adopting drone delivery being driven by increased efficiency. While traffic is jammed and fuel prices are volatile, air space is massive and becoming more accessible. Reducing reliance on gas-powered delivery vehicles with tough, environmentally friendly cargo, drones are ultimately a safer, more flexible and more cost-effective approach to delivery," he said.
Meier believes the number of retailers deploying drone delivery will ratchet upward once the doubtful consumers understand the convenience and benefits.
"Home delivery has become the new convenience store, with groceries, clothing, household items and food leading delivery orders for more than 80% of Americans. We expect that drone delivery will become the preferred delivery method for consumers, creating better shopping experiences by both reducing delivery times and bringing a positive impact on the environment," he said.