If you live in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Utah, or Virginia, your recent online Walmart order may have been delivered to your home by a drone. In May, Walmart announced that it completed hundreds of drone deliveries. By this time next year, Walmart hopes to complete over a million drone home deliveries in these states.
In the May press release, Walmart announced that its drone delivery program was made possible through its partnership with DroneUp, a company that offers drone flight services through a network of single pilots and pilot organizations. Through close consultation with DroneUp, Walmart is now able to deliver packages weighing less than 10 pounds, in as little as 30 minutes, between the hours of 8am and 8pm. While Walmart believed most customers would use its drone-delivery service for “emergency items,” it turns out that the top selling item in one hub location is Hamburger Helper.
This demonstrates that consumers quickly become comfortable using drone delivery service for all kinds of goods, including food and everyday household items.
According to recent press releases, Walmart’s delivery process is as follows: a DroneUp delivery hub, with a team of certified drone pilots, is tasked with the safe delivery of packages within the confines of FAA guidelines. When a customer places an order, the item is fulfilled from the store, packaged, loaded into the drone, and delivered to the customer’s home using a cable that gently lowers the package to the ground.
Companies wishing to deliver products by drone must consider federal regulation 14 C.F.R. § 107.31, which requires drone pilots to keep their drones in visual line of sight at all times. Commercial drone pilots, however, can apply for a Part 107 waiver if they need to fly beyond visual line of sight. To obtain a waiver of the line of sight requirement, the FAA recommends that a company’s waiver application discuss, among other things, (i) how the Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) will be able to continuously know and determine the position, altitude, attitude, and movement of his/her drone and ensure the drone remains in the area of intended operation without exceeding the command’s performance capabilities, (ii) how the RPIC will avoid other aircraft, flying over/into people on the ground, and ground-based structures and obstacles at all times, (iii) how the RPIC is alerted if the drone malfunctions or its capabilities degrade, and how he/she will respond, and (iv) if the drone uses GPS functionality, what will the RPIC do if the GPS fails to provide location information, or provides reduced GPS position accuracy.
In the absence of a line of sight waiver, DroneUp has opted for a low-tech solution: constructing a miniature control tower in the parking lot of each Walmart. According to DroneUp’s founder Tom Walker, an operator in this tower can see a drone as far as 1.5 miles (2.4 km) away and deliver packages within this radius. Walker hopes that the FAA will eventually waive the line-of-sight requirement, allowing Walmart to utilize the full 3-mile (5 km) range of its current drones to serve more customers.
On November 16, 2021, the company Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc., received a line of sight waiver from the FAA. Wing is able to deliver items from a number of local business as far as 4 miles from the drone home base in the Dallas-metro area.
Companies without waivers should be aware of the implications for failure to comply with the line of sight requirement. Charges of reckless endangerment and national defense airspace violations have been brought against defendants for flying drones outside of their line of sight over large, crowded events.
As of today’s date in 2022, the FAA has granted over 100 waivers for Part 107.31 to various public and private companies and institutions. The longest line of sight waiver the FAA has issued is to Censys Technologies and Soaring Eagle Technologies, covering a 12-mile distance, which will be utilized for inspecting transmission power lines.
The waiver application process is currently the best option to maximize range for drone deliveries. In the meantime, companies can utilize similar approaches to Walmart/DroneUp, such as building elevated platforms in parking lots to increase an RPIC’s line of sight.