Online shoppers who want to order food and medical items from the local Walmart in Grand Forks, N.D., have a surprising new home delivery option. In addition to the usual in-store pickup or delivery by truck, a drone startup is offering to fly items straight to a customer’s backyard.
The airborne delivery network, run by Israeli drone startup Flytrex, is one of just a handful in the U.S. permitted to make crosstown commercial deliveries. The service kicked off in May after the company received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates drones, a month earlier.
Over the past few years, the commercial drone industry has been slowly expanding in the U.S. as the Federal Aviation Administration allows more flights. Most of those approvals have gone to services like deliveries, the inspection of buildings and structures, and moviemaking.
Since the pandemic started, some companies have talked about using drones to help fight the spread of the virus directly, like spraying disinfectants on outdoor stadiums or scanning crowds for infected people using thermal imaging. But those ideas have yet to gain much momentum.
About 60,000 developers are working on drone applications with DJI, including pipeline inspection apps to 3D mapping. Applications related to critical infrastructure and first responders have been particularly hot during the pandemic. “That kind of stuff can’t go on pause,” Gasparic says. “That’s where drones have really come into their own.”
DroneDeploy, a drone software startup in San Francisco, has seen a huge increase in business during the pandemic. However, it’s been for the same kinds of general applications it was offering before.
For example, DroneDeploy has a program that analyzes drone footage of farmers’ fields and helps make recommendations about when to apply pesticides. The number of agriculture flights has tripled over the past three months. Similarly, the company is seeing 2.5 times as many flights using its energy app, which solar panel installers use to calculate where to place panels on customers’ roofs. Meanwhile, flights by companies involved in the construction industry are up 70%.
“Drones are kind of the perfect socially distant worker,” says DroneDeploy CEO Michael Winn. “They can collect data and share it with people who aren’t present.”
Similarly, Alphabet’s Wing drone delivery division has expanded its services into more industries. After the pandemic hit, orders through an existing drone-delivery partnership with Walgreens in Virginia jumped for medicine, toilet paper, and groceries. Last month, Wing expanded to deliver school and library books by drone.
The Flytrex service in North Dakota relies on drones the company has created that are capable of carrying packages weighing up to nearly seven pounds for up to 3.5 miles. Customers must order using a Flytrex app, through which about 200 Walmart items—from diapers and toothpaste to hamburger buns—are available. Flytrex packs the drone at the store and then flies it to a customer’s backyard, where the order is lowered by cable from a height of about 80 feet.
Additionally, drone startup EagleHawk, based in Syracuse, N.Y., has been testing a new feature on its drones that enables the machines to fly over outdoor or indoor stadiums and spray disinfecting substances to kill COVID-19. Though large-scale drone spraying projects to combat the virus have been used in parts of China and India, EagleHawk has yet to announce any U.S. customers for its offering.