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

By Ben Gross | March 5, 2023

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In a recent case study published on its website, Elsight discussed its work with DroneUp.

“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. AmazonUPS 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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