Walmart's drones take a multi-carrier approach to 5G

A Walmart representative confirmed that the company's drone fleet can be upgraded to 5G, and that the company's drone vendor, DroneUp, uses technology from Elsight to connect to multiple cellular networks.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

January 30, 2023

4 Min Read
Walmart's drones take a multi-carrier approach to 5G

Walmart's drone operation reported major progress over the holidays, safely completing more than 6,000 deliveries in the US throughout 2022. More importantly, the company said it's now positioned to offer "drone delivery at scale with its 4,700 stores located within 90% of the US population."

And Walmart officials see 5G as playing a major role in that effort.

"Our fleet of delivery drones are all 5G capable, and our existing operations are currently using LTE. This is subject to change as 5G networks continue to evolve domestically," a Walmart representative wrote in response to questions from Light Reading.

Figure 1: Walmart is looking to expand its drone delivery operations. (Source: Walmart) Walmart is looking to expand its drone delivery operations.
(Source: Walmart)

Walmart's drone program runs through DroneUp, a startup that Walmart bought into in 2021. The Walmart representative told Light Reading that DroneUp, in turn, relies on vendor Elsight for its wireless connections.

In a recent case study published on its website, Elsight discussed its work with DroneUp and an unnamed retailer that is likely Walmart.

"In order to achieve the levels of safety and reliability required for drone delivery and other BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) operations, DroneUp required a solution that would get them as close as possible to what is known as 'six nines' of availability, or 99.9999% uptime," wrote Elsight in its case study. "Traditional RF links are too limited in range, and SATCOM (satellite communications) solutions proved to be too expensive. This left cellular as the communications technology of choice."

Elsight explained that DroneUp considered a variety of different cellular options until landing on the company's Halo platform, which supports 4G and 5G connections from multiple cellular providers in real time.

"While the drone delivery use case would not need the bandwidth of more than a single SIM, the ability to utilize multiple SIMs across multiple carriers eliminated the potential problem of having a single point of failure, providing the reliability that was required," Elsight wrote. "DroneUp selected Elsight's Halo platform as their connectivity solution of choice. The carrier-agnostic Halo can utilize up to four SIMs from multiple carriers, and uses AI-powered bonding that aggregates all available bandwidth into one, automatically balances traffic, and allows drone communication systems to seamlessly switch to a backup link if network coverage is lost."

Meaning, Walmart's expanding drone program doesn't rely on any one carrier like Verizon or T-Mobile. Instead, Walmart's drone vendor, DroneUp, is using a platform from Elsight that can connect to the best 4G or 5G network at any time and in any place.

"The best way to boost your chances of maintaining rock-solid connectivity for your drone operations is to use a purpose-built solution that supports multiple network providers and uses automatic link monitoring to ensure constant connection," Elsight's Ben Gross wrote on the company's website in December. "Elsight's Halo platform provides all this and more. Able to utilize up to four different cellular links from multiple network providers, it monitors all available connections and seamlessly switches to the best possible option should dropout occur."

Walmart said it currently operates 36 drone delivery hubs across seven US states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia. The retailing giant also reported that its most popular drone-delivered products include Great Value Cookies and Cream Ice Cream, lemons, rotisserie chickens, Red Bull drinks and Bounty paper towels.

"We're encouraged by the positive response from customers and look forward to making even more progress in 2023," said Walmart's Vik Gopalakrishnan, VP of innovation and automation, in a statement. The company's drones can carry up to 10 pounds and can land in customers' yards. Each delivery costs $3.99.

Walmart, DroneUp and Elsight aren't the only companies pursuing the drone opportunity. Amazon, UPS and others are also investing in drone deliveries. And T-Mobile and Qualcomm are among the many wireless companies looking to provide products and services to drone operators.

Verizon shuttered Skyward, the drone startup it purchased in 2017, last year at roughly the same time Walmart first disclosed its drone ambitions with DroneUp.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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