Do Walmart and Target Have a Secret Weapon to Beat Amazon on Drone Delivery?

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We all know that Amazon is the clear leader in online sales and that it is also pushing hard to make drones deliveries a reality. It looks like they have the upper hand, especially when you consider that their nearest rivals in online sales—Walmart and Target—are far behind them in developing drone delivery.

But Walmart and Target have a secret weapon that could, if properly used, give them an advantage against the empire of Jeff Bezos. What is that secret weapon, you ask? Their stores!

Both Walmart and Target have thousands of store and distribution centers throughout the nation that could easily accommodate a drone delivery center.

The good folks over has Business Insider Intelligence have put together some interesting info using data from users of The Weather Company App. They found that 49% of users of the weather app live within 6 miles of a Walmart store and that 47% of users live within 6 miles of a Target store. In both cases, around 15% of purchases these individuals made where under $10 and likely would be light enough to deliver by drones. Walmart’s own numbers are even better. On a recent blog the mega retailer said that 70% of the US population lives within 5 miles of a Walmart store.

In comparison only 44% of people live within 20 miles of an Amazon fulfillment center, beyond the range of current drone delivery technology.

There are a lot of ifs here, but if either Walmart or Target can realize this potential and get in the drone delivery game, things could heat up real quick!

Surprise! Drone Sales Double

A new report from the NPD Group reveals that drone sales more than doubled (up 117% to be exact) from February 2016 to February 2017. That’s a big jump, clearly showing the strength of consumers drones in the market. These sales numbers include the a wide variety of drones from $50 mini-drones (which are really just toys) to the $3,000 DJI Inspire 2.

Here are some useful tidbits from the NPD report:

  • During the holiday season drones with a price tag between $50- $100 saw a significant uptick in sales.
  • For drones in the $300-$500 price range, there is a clear consumer demand for premium features.
    • Drones with auto pilot capabilities sold nearly five times more quickly.
    • Drones that feature follow mode functionality sold 19x more quickly.
  • During the first two months of 2017…
    • Drones with a price tag over $300 drove 84% of dollar sales and nearly 40% of unit sales.
    • Drones sold for $1,000+ saw the highest rate of sales.

In roughly the same time period from January 2016 to January 2017 the number of drones registered with the FAA when up by 123%. And according to the numbers in the last two months over 100,000 more drones have been registered with the FAA.

Drone Deliveries Move Forward in China

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One of China’s largest eCommerce business, JD.com, is at it again. In the next three years the company plans to open 150 drone launch facilities in China’s southwestern Sichuan province in an effort to create a local drone delivery network. Sichuan’s mountainous terrain has for centuries made travel and delivery a difficulty to isolated rural communities, now drones can change that.

Drone Dossier has reported on JD’s work before. Since June of 2016 they have been making live drone deliveries in four test areas throughout China. They are also working directly with Chinese authorities to set up a drone traffic management systems in the areas they operate.

JD has a variety of drones to deliver packages with the largest supposedly able to lift upwards of 50 kg and they are developing ones that can lift around 500 kg! JD’s CEO Richard Liu recently said that drone deliveries would reduce the costs of shipping freight by 70%, compared to conventional truck delivery.

JD is also streamlining the way its uses drones, deciding not to make deliveries to individual address, but instead deliver to one of the thousands of local distribution centers that is has both in cities and in rural areas.

The video below shows JD’s concept. In it a man orders diapers online from a local village. The order then goes to the nearest drone-capable distribution center which packs up the diapers and sends them to the local village via an autonomous drone. Notice that the JD drone in this video is a tri-rotor drone and it appears (3:34) that the box has hooks that latch unto the drones chassis itself to secure the package during transit. The drone drops the package off at another smaller JD distribution center where a local employee picks it up and literally walks it over a few houses to the guy who order the diapers online.

Drones Are Now Used to Build Bridges

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Forget observing construction projects, workers in China are now using drones to assist in building massive bridges.

In China’s Sichuan Province workers are currently building the Xingkang Bridge that when completed will be nearly a mile long and hang over 600 feet above the raging Dadu River. The southwestern province is famous for its river gorge valleys that impede travel.

The first step in creating these massive suspension bridges is to run a pilot cable across the expanse the bridge will traverse and then use this pilot cable to rig up larger and larger cables. Usually a helicopter or boat would be used to run a pilot cable. But this time a drone is being used.

In December, Chinese engineers used a large 6-rotor drone to carry the pilot cable to the other side of the bridge structure. The engineers claim this method is over 100 times more efficient and 80% less costly than traditional methods—not to mention safer. This is also not the first time China has used drones in this manner to help construct bridges.

Such innovative uses of drones show their ability to make things more efficient and cheaper—which when you think about it, are the two keys in making a technology stick. It will be interesting to see what other ways drones can aid construction project.

California Start-Up Aims to Change the Cargo Industry With a Drone

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A start-up in the San Francisco bay area is aiming to shake up the way cargo is delivered with drones. Natilus, Inc. is building a 30 foot drone cargo plane prototype that they hope to get airborne later this year.

Natilus aims at creating drones as big as 140-feet that are capable of carrying over 200,000 pounds of cargo at half the cost of current jet cargo planes. The sturdy carbon fiber drone is designed to take off from water and also land in water before taxiing to a dock to unload its cargo. This eliminates the need for ground-based infrastructure like large landing strips.

But how the drone really saves money is its ability to fly for longer times at slower speeds than any commercially available jet. Because of factors like pilot fatigue, normal cargo planes travel at higher speeds and in the process burn more fuel, making the trip faster, but also much more expensive. Because the Natilus drones will be autonomous, this is not a concern. The company uses the following cost comparison to get an idea of how this new drone could change the way cargo is transported.

Time and cost of shipping 200,000 pounds of cargo by:

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The prototype of the Natilus drone is not yet built, but if this start-up can get things right they have the possibility of changing the way cargo is transported. Natilus plans on flying cargo drones between California and Hawaii by 2019.

Drones Invade Game of Thrones Set

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Westeros has another invasion to worry about…an invasions of drones! According to Liam Cunningham, the actor who plays Davos Seaworth, drones flew over the Game of Thrones set in Spain multiple times. Video from those flights was supposedly steamed onto the internet. The actor wasn’t happy about these incidents, referring to the invading drone pilots as “low-lifers”.

Maybe the Game of Thrones crew should get medieval on these drones, but remember, Phantom-type drones are quite resistant.

Why Drones are Valuable Tools for Plant Breeders

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Drone industry analysts have pegged agriculture as one of the top sectors for future drone growth. Drones save farmers time, money and give them valuable data about crops that help them be more profitable. But drones have even more potential for plant breeders.

Its simple really, farmers plant one kind of soybean plat in a 10 acre field, while a plant breeder might have 1,000 different kinds of soybean plants in a single acre. In a recent article in the Daily Register, (local Illinois paper) University of Illinois soybean breeder Brian Diers explained the significance of this, “The farmer can fairly quickly determine whether the single variety in a field is ready to be harvested. However, breeders have to walk through research fields several times in the fall to determine the date when each potential variety matures.”

Generally, plant breeders check the plants every three days to see how the different varieties are doing. Obviously this is extremely time consuming. The researchers at the University of Illinois started using drones to scan and observe the plants instead of walking the fields. They used multi-spectral images and were able to tell the difference between mature an immature plants based on changes in the light frequency they reflected. They plugged this information into a self-made algorithm and found that using drones achieved 93% of the accuracy of physically walking the fields and checking plants, while saving a ton of time.

Farmers in Africa are already using this technique to improve plant breeding. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Southern Africa first tested using drones in 2013 and found they can save a lot of time. While it would normally take 8 hours to walk the fields to check the plants, the same task can be done in 10 minutes with a drone.

This efficiency is especially important for African farmers as they have to find new breeds of maize and wheat that are more resistant to the climate changes they are currently experiencing.