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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - This June 25, 2019, file photo shows the entrance to a Walmart in Pittsburgh. - Photo by AP/Gene J. Puskar

Walmart Inc. is testing drone delivery of groceries and household essentials, the company said Wednesday.

Walmart partnered with Israeli drone delivery company Flytrex on the pilot program, which started Wednesday in Fayetteville, N.C.

Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product at Walmart, said in a corporate blog post, said that the pilot will test how the unmanned aerial vehicles can deliver quickly, conveniently and safely. He called the program "the next step in our exploration of on-demand delivery."

Walmart and other companies have been exploring various automated delivery methods for several years, including driverless vehicles. The covid-19 pandemic has accelerated interest in contactless delivery of orders placed online.

What the Bentonville-based retailer learns from the test "will help shape the potential of drone delivery on a larger scale," Ward said.

"We know that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone," Ward said. "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."

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With a distribution center just outside a Walmart Supercenter in Grand Forks, N.D., Flytrex already delivers "food packs" of essentials from Walmart to subscribers' backyards, according to Flytrex's website.

Flytrex got Federal Aviation Administration approval to operate in the U.S. in April and works with the North Carolina Department of Transportation to standardize backyard drone delivery, according to the company's website. The drones can carry up to 6.6 pounds for 3.5 miles, cruising at 32 mph at an altitude of 230 feet, and are designed specifically for suburban delivery, the company said.

Items are packed into the drone's delivery box, and customers use an app to approve the delivery when the device reaches their backyard. A wire release mechanism then gently lowers the box from a height of 80 feet.

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Flytrex has made deliveries for an e-commerce firm in Reykjavik, Iceland, since 2018.

Pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. made the first U.S. drone delivery in October 2019. Using Wing Aviation LLC, owned by Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., Walgreens continues testing the service to deliver over-the-counter medications and snack foods in Christiansburg, Va.

A month later, CVS Health Corp. partnered with United Parcel Service Inc. subsidiary UPS Flight Forward to make their first delivery from a CVS pharmacy in Cary, N.C. The companies said in an April news release that they would start drone deliveries of prescription medicines to a retirement community in Florida.

The companies said in the joint release that they'd been looking at ways to support patients and health care workers in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

"Our new drone delivery service will help CVS provide safe and efficient deliveries of medicines to this large retirement community, enabling residents to receive medications without leaving their homes," said Scott Price, UPS chief strategy and transformation officer.

And on Aug. 29, the FAA granted approval to Walmart's e-commerce rival Amazon.com to test its drone delivery service called Amazon Prime Air. The company hasn't said yet where or when it will start testing.

Like Flytrex, Wing and UPS, Amazon received its air carrier certification through the FAA's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. The agency said it has several other applications for certification in the works.

Pedro Pacheco, a senior director analyst at research and advisory firm Gartner Inc., said in a May report that the operational costs for drone parcel delivery are at least 70% lower than van delivery. He predicts that by 2026, more than a million drones will be making retail deliveries, compared with 20,000 currently.

The growing adoption of drone delivery will force businesses to adapt their operational models to realize the full benefits of the technology and remain competitive, Pacheco said.

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