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Drugstores Are in the Sweet Spot for Drone Deliveries

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Drugstores Are in the Sweet Spot for Drone Deliveries


Drones may not be ready to plop a stack of pepperoni pizzas into your backyard, but they’re gearing up to do something potentially better: deliver the antacids to help you manage the resulting heartburn.

On Monday, subsidiaries of CVS and UPS said they’re exploring ways to move the drugstore’s products with the logistics giant’s drones. The news follows the start on Friday of a pilot run by Alphabet’s drone outfit, Wing, and Walgreens, delivering bundles of over-the-counter medicines, tissues, diapers, and more to residents of rural Christiansburg, Virginia.

The close timing of the announcements hints at a turning point where drone delivery starts to get real. Companies have made technological and logistical advances, puzzling out the mechanics of moving goods by air; meanwhile, regulators have settled on how to let drones take off without making a mess of America’s crowded, complex airspace. This year, the FAA gave each company a Part 135 certification, making them official airlines with the right to make commercial deliveries.

Wing delivers purchases from a Walgreens in Christiansburg, Virginia.

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Courtesy of Wing

Over the past six months, UPS drones have shuttled medical samples and pharmaceutical supplies around a hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. Monday, UPS said it’s expanding that effort to the University of Utah. The CVS deal will mark its first work with consumers, but the use case isn’t so different. Drones are most useful when speed matters, whether that’s getting a blood sample to a lab or restocking a new parent’s diaper supply. “The sweet spot is urgent, critical movements,” says Bala Ganesh, who leads the Advanced Technology Group at UPS, including the drone effort.

While UPS and CVS start plotting, Wing is toting actual goods. If you’re at least 18 years old and live in the delivery area around Christiansburg, you can use Wing’s app to shop for more than 100 goodies, including baby wipes, diapers, pain relievers, tissues, and cold medicine. Place your order, and “within minutes,” the company says, one of Wing’s catamaran-like flyers should be hovering over your front or back yard. The Virginia pilot, which is slated to run until October 2020, builds on a similar one the Alphabet company has been running in Australia since April.

It’s no surprise that, as they look for commercial applications, both companies have arrived at the drugstore. There’s the matter of urgency, for one thing: When you want to restock on diapers or Imodium, you usually want to do it quickly—and you’re happier staying home than racing to the store. In those cases, customers are willing to pay a hefty premium for a near-instantaneous delivery, says Joshua Ziering, who ran the short-lived drugstore drone delivery service QuiQui, which shuttered in 2015. (Ziering, who has since founded drone logistics company, says he was a few years too early, before the regulatory regime allowed for this kind of scheme.) Wing is providing the Virginia service at no additional cost to consumers, and Ganesh of UPS says it’s too early to discuss pricing.


The WIRED Guide to Drones

That’s why drugstore deliveries in general have become popular in recent years: CVS and Walgreens already have programs to move goods the conventional way, with drivers. Amazon moved into the space in 2018 with the purchase of PillPack, as have startups including Nimble and Medly Pharmacy.


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