Walgreens, Alphabet's Wing kick off drone delivery service in major metro area

Drugstore giant Walgreens launched an on-demand drone delivery service with Alphabet's Wing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The partnership marks the first commercial drone delivery service in a major U.S. metropolitan area, according to the companies. DFW is the U.S.’s fourth-largest metro area with 117 suburbs fanning out from the city center. The amount of public space and accessible households made it an ideal location for this industry-first partnership, company executives said in an announcement.

Walgreens kicked off a pilot with Wing in 2019 to test small-scale drone deliveries in the Virginia town of Christiansburg.

Walgreens will use Wing's drones for delivery service to tens of thousands of suburban homes in the City of Frisco and the Town of Little Elm. Select customers in the pilot program’s designated area can use Wing's mobile app to order over-the-counter health and wellness products. Items are attached to lines dropped by the drones and then reeled in for delivery. As the pilot project continues, drone delivery will be free for customers.

“Back when we launched in Virginia, we knew our goal was to deliver more things to people all over the world, which would mean operating beyond small towns,” said Jacob Demmitt, U.S. marketing and communications manager for Wing in a statement. “We knew the next frontier would be in major U.S. metros, so we’ve spent a lot of time preparing for this launch with Walgreens.”

Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, was the first drone operator certified as an air carrier by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2019.

Few healthcare organizations currently use drones to deliver medications and other supplies, but escalating demands for remote care options and medication delivery during the pandemic led more players to ink partnerships.

Magellan Health and Zipline announced a partnership in February to deliver prescription medications via drones. Deliveries are expected to begin this year—pending federal approval—starting in North Carolina. Zipline also inked a collaboration with Pfizer and BioNTech to deliver their mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana.

Walgreens is not the only retailer exploring the use of drones to offer customers faster and more convenient delivery service but efforts have been slow to take off. In June 2019, Amazon executives said its new delivery drone should be ready "within months" but the online retail behemoth is still running tests of the service, called Amazon Prime Air, Time reported last fall.

CVS and UPS first announced they would be testing certain applications for drone delivery in 2019 before rolling out prescription deliveries via drone to retirement communities in Florida in August 2020.

Hospitals like Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and Hutchinson Regional Medical Center also piloted drone delivery programs.

Drone deliveries became more popular in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic to ship COVID-19 tests, personal protective equipment and other resources

Using drone delivery in major metro areas

A critical detail before launching in a major U.S. market was reducing the footprint of Wing’s operations. In Virginia, orders are fulfilled by Wing employees from a Wing-owned fulfillment site. In the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Wing is able to operate from a minimal amount of store parking lot spaces and Walgreens team members load the packages. The goal is to deliver products in under ten minutes once an order is placed, executives said.

Once an order is placed, Walgreens team members are notified of incoming orders on Wing-provided tablets and will locate the items on the shelves and package them. After attending training validated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they have been cleared to attach these packages to the drones, which are waiting on charging pads in the parking lot. Wing then oversees the delivery from a remote location.

“I worked with Wing to find ways to make the pilot program as successful as we can, which includes everything from looking at the safety for our team members to ensuring we have the product selection available for our customers," said Debbie Sayler, Walgreens director of pharmacy and retail in North Texas in a statement. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, drone delivery service went from a "novelty to a necessity," Wing's Demmitt said, noting that it's "never gone back."

"Once it became a part of people’s every day, it stuck. It’s a big part of peoples’ lives in Virginia and we hope to see the same thing here," he said.

As of March 1, Wing had made over 200,000 commercial drone deliveries, not including test flights or test deliveries, the company said. It took the company more than two and a half years to make the first 100,000 deliveries and just six months to make the second 100,000. 

The company also touts the environmental benefits of using drone delivery for retail healthcare. Wing’s delivery drones are about 10x as efficient as some of the most efficient electric vehicles on the road today, and more than 50x more efficient than an average gasoline-powered vehicle, according to the company.

A Virginia Tech Economic Impact Study looked at the potential benefits that drone delivery can have when deployed at scale in an average U.S. metro area. According to the study, drone delivery at scale in the average U.S. metro area would generate up to $284,000 per year in new annual sales for a participating local business, reduce vehicle traffic by 294 million miles per year, equivalent to taking 25,565 cars off the road and could reduce up to 113,900 tons of Co2 per year, equivalent to planting 46,000 acres of new forest, according to data Wing shared.