Drone delivery unicorn Zipline formalizes partnership with Walmart

The two announced a pilot last year, but are reaffirming the Arkansas-based partnership now.
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Another week, another delivery-focused emerging tech company coming to Northwest Arkansas. Zipline, a San Francisco–based drone delivery company, announced a new partnership with Walmart yesterday, following a pilot last fall.

Like all US drone delivery partnerships right now, the scope is limited: Zipline will service one store and one rural community in Pea Ridge, Arkansas. It’ll focus on health and wellness products, and—as is the case with most drones flying in the US—its aircraft must stay within a human’s line of sight.

  • Zipline has other US operations in North Carolina and Utah, but it primarily works in Rwanda and Ghana. To date, Zipline says its autonomous drones have made 210,000 commercial deliveries across five countries.
  • The company raised a $250 million Series E in June, and is valued at $2.75 billion.

For its part...Walmart is applying a strategy to drone delivery that’s in keeping with its approach to other technologies, like autonomous vehicles and robotics: Trying out multiple vendors to see what sticks. It announced an expanded partnership with DroneUp last year, and did a test with Flytrex the year prior.

Zipline CTO and cofounder Keenan Wyrobek told us the company’s distribution centers have, on average, 25 drones in operation, with some fluctuations depending on delivery volume. That number can support 150 flights per day, he said.

  • That puts Zipline’s fleet size at ~100 in Rwanda, and ~50 in Ghana, according to Wyrobek.
  • Zipline declined to share specific numbers around the Walmart partnership, but noted that it plans to further expand in the region of northwest Arkansas, subject to FAA approval.
  • Axios reports that Zipline’s drones can carry ~4 pounds, and deliver to customers within 30 minutes of an order.

Looking ahead...Wyrobeck said that “what’s exciting now is the growth—we’ve actually gotten good at things in a pretty limited setting, so now it’s about scaling with new partners.” For now, that scaling up is likely to take place across countries in Africa, where he said a generally strong product-market fit and clear regulatory frameworks make it more efficient to grow.

The US, on the other hand, is a different story, due to the complexity of the country’s airspace.

“The movement here in the US is very limited when you compare it to what’s happening in the rest of the world. Everybody in this country is operating today with visual observers...people on the routes literally watching the sky,” Wyrobeck said. “Things are just not at all economical, you can’t scale with them.”

Stay up to date on tech

Drones, automation, AI, and more. The technologies that will shape the future of business, all in one newsletter.