Walmart is using drones to deliver COVID-19 tests

Author: Matt Egan / CNN Business
Walmart drones
Walmart launched a pilot drone delivery program that will drop off Covid-19 tests to homes within a one-mile radius of the North Las Vegas store.

If you need to get a COVID-19 test, but don’t want to go near people, Walmart’s got you covered. At least if you live near its North Las Vegas store.

Walmart launched a pilot drone delivery program Tuesday that will drop off COVID-19 tests to homes within a one-mile radius of the North Las Vegas store.

Customers will receive a text from DroneUp when the Quest Diagnostics test is on its way. And depending on where there are cars and trees, the kits will land on people’s driveways, front sidewalks or backyard. Delivery, which can take as little as five minutes, will be free.

The samples can then be sent via FedEx to a Quest lab, which will send out results digitally. Test results typically arrive in two days.

The pilot program offers a glimpse into how drones could be used in the not-too-distant-future to provide faster and contactless delivery.

“We hope drone delivery of self-collection kits will shape contactless testing capabilities on a larger scale and continue to bolster the innovative ways Walmart plans to use drone delivery in the future,” Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president of consumer products, said in a blog post.

For now, the vast majority of Americans will not have access to drone deliveries of COVID-19 tests. Walmart plans to expand the drone trial to Cheektowaga, New York — just outside Buffalo — in early October, but no other sites have been announced.

And there are limitations to the program. Drone deliveries are only available “while supplies last,” between 8:30 am and 3:30 pm and to single-family homes. And deliveries can be prevented by “unanticipated physical barriers, power lines, trees, cars or weather.”

In other words, if you need a COVID-19 test on a rainy day, it probably won’t come via drone.

To keep failed deliveries to a minimum, Quest Diagnostics said that delivery areas will be “surveyed in real time” beforehand.

Last week, Quest and Walmart announced that COVID-19 tests can now be conducted at more than 500 Walmart drive-thru pharmacy locations in the United States.

The Covid-19 test drone program is just part of Walmart’s experiments with drones.

Earlier this month, Walmart launched a drone pilot program with Flytrex to deliver household and grocery items to customers in Fayetteville, North Carolina. And next year Walmart plans to begin a separate drone program with Zipline to deliver health and wellness programs to customers near the retail giant’s headquarters in Northwest Arkansas.

“We know that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone,” Ward, the Walmart executive, wrote in a separate blog post. “That still feels like a bit of science fiction, but we’re at a point where we’re learning more and more about the technology that is available and how we can use it to make our customers’ lives easier.”

Walmart rival Amazon is also making progress on drone deliveries, albeit at a slower speed than some had hoped. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos first announced in late 2013 plans to use drones to make deliveries in 30 minutes or less.

Yet progress has been slow because drone technology and regulations are just not ready for widespread use — at least not yet. Specifically, the FAA is still working on ways to remotely identify drones, a crucial step for safety.

In late 2016, Amazon made kicked off a drone delivery trial in Britain. And last month, Amazon received a crucial certificate from the FAA that brings the e-commerce giant a step closer to making drone delivery in the United States a reality.

UPS and Wing, a division of Google owner Alphabet, also received FAA certificates in 2019 for drone delivery.

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