Retail & Innovation

The sky's no longer the limit

Walgreens and Wing prepare for takeoff as drone delivery trial begins in Christiansburg, Va.

Brittany Kruk, Walgreens News

Imagine you’re the parent of a toddler whose forehead suddenly feels warm to the back of your hand. You open up your medicine cabinet to grab some children’s ibuprofen – and uh-oh. You’re out. Now you have two options: grab a sick kid and your car keys and drive to your neighborhood Walgreens, or get relief for your little one delivered to your door in minutes via drone technology.
The latter seems like a piece of cake – and by the way, the drone can deliver that, too.
Starting Friday, Oct. 18, Walgreens and Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, will begin a trial drone delivery service for select residents of Christiansburg, Va. This industry-first strategic partnership, announced in September, will offer quick, convenient delivery of some of our most sought-after health and wellness, food and beverage, and convenience items.

The place: Christiansburg, Va.
Christiansburg seems like a typical small town at first glance, with weekly farmers markets, goat yoga in the park and a single Walgreens store. But because it’s located just 10 minutes from Blacksburg – home to Virginia Tech University, which has worked with Wing since 2016 to test drone delivery as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Integration Pilot Program – it’s also the perfect place to, well, pilot.
Representatives from Walgreens and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the mayor of Christiansburg and other local government officials, and members of the media will attend a launch event today, Oct. 18, to see the first customer order delivered by drone.
Beyond Christiansburg, there’s no telling where the drones will go next. “This trial allows us to be one of the first retailers in the U.S. to offer the unparalleled speed and convenience of ‘store to door’ delivery via state-of-the-art drone technology,” says Vish Sankaran, chief innovation officer, Walgreens Boots Alliance. “Our focus right now is on providing a great experience for our customers in Christiansburg, and getting feedback on how they can best use the service.”

The process: Delivering via drone

With fixed wings spanning 3 feet, the drones used by Wing weigh about 10 pounds each. These drones can pick up a package, fly to a designated site, hover over the delivery area and gently lower the package to the ground at a precise location chosen by the customer, such as a backyard or near a doorstep.

  1. Ordering: The customer selects the Walgreens products they wish to order via the Wing mobile app, choosing from more than 100 over-the-counter medicines, wellness products, foods, beverages and convenience items (prescription deliveries are not available via this service). There’s no additional cost for drone delivery during the trial. When an order is received, a Wing employee pulls the items from a supply of Walgreens products at the Wing site in Christiansburg and puts them in a specialized package, with a max weight of approximately 3 pounds, among other size limitations. Wing’s systems then request a drone to pick up the package.
  2. Flight planning: Drones automatically map the safest route from the Wing test site to the customer using Wing’s unmanned aircraft traffic management system, which plans a flight path from takeoff to landing, taking into account safety and regulatory restrictions and avoiding other Wing drones and obstacles, such as buildings, vehicles, trees and power lines. The flight plan is then uploaded to the drone automatically.
  3. Package pick-up: The drone launches automatically and proceeds to the pick-up area at the Wing test site, then hovers at roughly 23 feet above the ground while a Wing employee connects the Walgreens package to an extendable tether beneath the drone. Then the tether contracts and pulls the package up.
  4. Delivery: The drone climbs to cruise height and heads for its destination. The Wing app tells the customer the exact minute the delivery will arrive. Once it’s there, the drone switches to hover mode and descends to delivery height, approximately 23 feet above the ground. The drone then lowers its tether and automatically releases the Walgreens package.
  5. Return flight: The drone climbs back to cruise height and returns to the Wing site, landing on a charging pad to prepare for the next delivery.

The packs: Six popular combos

In addition to the product selection on the Wing app, customers can choose from six ready-made packs of items from different categories: kid’s snacks, first aid, allergy, pain, baby care and cough/cold.

Wing employees place Walgreens merchandise into a specialized water-resistant package for drone delivery during the trial in Christiansburg, Va.

Customers can prevent hungry kids from becoming hangry kids with the Kid’s Snack Pack. And for minor cuts, scrapes, bumps and bruises, there’s the First-Aid Pack.

Customers can get relief in minutes with the Allergy Pack or the Pain Pack.

Parents at home with a sick child can order the Baby Pack to nurse their little one back to health without ever having to leave their side.

Those with a common cold or flu can begin to feel better with the Cough/Cold Pack.

The pilots: Safety first

With more than 80,000 drone test flights and thousands of deliveries under its belt, Wing says safety is its highest priority. To offer drone delivery in the suburbs, it must meet the highest international safety standards, and all operations can only be undertaken with FAA approval. Wing also has real-time systems that conduct health and safety checks on the drones and qualified pilots who oversee operations.
Although Wing has certified human pilots who can remotely command a delivery drone to make a precautionary landing at any time, the drones are designed to operate without a pilot – they can fly themselves from takeoff to landing using onboard flight-control systems.
The potential: Drone delivery on the rise
The Christiansburg trial will be Wing’s first in the U.S., but the company has already taken flight in other parts of the world. Wing began testing drone delivery in Australia in 2014 before launching delivery services in Canberra this past April and in Queensland in September. Canberra residents can order from 16 businesses offering a range of goods, from coffee and doughnuts to candles and golf accessories. In Queensland, three businesses are currently participating: a coffee shop, a grocer and a hardware store. And in Helsinki, Finland, Wing began offering drone delivery from a gourmet supermarket and a local café in June.
“As our customers change the way they shop and adopt new technologies, strategic partnerships help us expand our omni-channel offerings and bring innovative solutions to the marketplace, meeting the needs of our customers’ evolving lifestyles and delivering greater value, convenience and accessibility to our products and services,” says Sankaran.


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