DRONES HAVE BEEN around since World War I, and the long narrative of their history has been heavily entwined with warfare itself. Today, though, a drone overhead doesn’t mean you need to duck and cover. In the modern world, drone technology is increasingly used for all manner of peaceful purposes. In 2016, Virginia-Beach based DroneUp launched with the vision of using “drones for good,” and they’re betting their future on home delivery of products both retail and health-related. Last May, Walmart announced a partnership with DroneUp, with the aim of delivering, by drone, to four million U.S. households in six states by the end of 2023. We recently sat down with Grant Brewer, DroneUp’s Manager for Community and Workforce Development based locally in Bentonville, to hear more about this exciting new technology.
Before we talk about drones, tell me about yourself. Were you a techy kid?
Not really. I was always a math and science student, but I was also an athlete in high school. In college, I studied business administration, and then my master’s degree is in higher education administration. I wanted to work at colleges—basically my goal was to be a college athletic director. But in the college coaching world, if you want to advance, you’ve got to be able to move around. And I found out I’m more of a homebody. I wanted to put down roots.
So I was working at a local college in the Arkansas River Valley and my position was eliminated because of budget cuts. That’s when I started teaching at the secondary level. In Fort Smith, I had the opportunity to be one of the first high school drone teachers in the state of Arkansas.
Were you always fascinated by drones?
I’d had a little bit of interest in them, though not a ton of experience. But in 2017, the high school in Fort Smith was getting ready to start a drone program, and I just wanted to see what it was about.
Really, I was teaching and coaching and I decided to just put in my application for a drone teaching job. I was like, They have to be starting this program with somebody already in mind, but I submitted my application anyway and went in for an interview. They were 20-minute interviews, back to back. The interview in front of me ran long, taking 10 minutes of my 20 minutes, and they basically got me in there and grilled me. At this point, I hadn’t had a job interview in three years. After it was over, I called my wife and said, “Hey. It was great, getting back in the interview process, just trying it out and everything.”
Next day, they called and offered me the job. I phoned my parents and told them, “Your son’s going to be a drone teacher.” They said, “Have you flown a drone?” I said, “Nope. And they did not ask me that in the interview.”
Our Career and Technical Education Director at the time actually hired two fulltime drone teachers at each high school in Fort Smith. He called us in and said, “I want to have the best high school drone program in the state of Arkansas—in the whole country.” And I’m a guy who had never flown a drone.
So how did you get from there to DroneUp?
I taught in Fort Smith for a few years, and then my wife got a new job and we moved here to Bentonville. I wasn’t able to teach drones because Bentonville didn’t have a high school drone program at that time, but we were about to start one in the community where I was teaching.
In the fall of 2021, DroneUp was presenting at one of the schools in our district, and I went and talked to their vice president of learning development and told him about my teaching background. “Let’s have a few more conversations,” he said, and mentioned that he could see this as an avenue for engagement with schools. “We have workforce development needs across the country,” he said.
That led to my being where I am with DroneUp, doing high school STEM engagement and college UAS engagement nationwide in all six of our markets that we have. Back in 2017, we told our students, “We’re preparing you for jobs that don’t exist.” Now here DroneUp is in Northwest Arkansas and we actually have these jobs where you can be a commercial drone operator and all you do is fly drones and deliver packages. Our Farmington hub opened in 2021, and both Bentonville and Rogers opened in 2022. When I joined DroneUp, negotiations were going on behind the scenes with Walmart. It was just the right time to become a part of this industry, because we were preparing to go from one to three hubs to potentially having 34 total hubs across the country by the end of that year.
Drones have been around for decades, especially for military use. Tell me about DroneUp’s vision for this technology.
The company started in 2016, and the idea was always for how drones can be used for good. For use in public safety, for example, especially off the coast. Could we fly drones and deploy flotation devices to people in distress? Or if people are out on the trails and in trouble, can we use drones for emergency help?
As the drone industry was growing and all these different industries started using drones for real estate photography, to inspect power lines and cell towers and solar panels and the like, we at DroneUp shifted our focus to delivery of goods. Whether that’s retail delivery for Walmart, or food or medical delivery—any way we can use drones for delivery is where we see our niche.
Okay, you’ve mentioned “hubs.” What constitutes a DroneUp delivery hub?
One of our locations here in northwest Arkansas is a great example. We’re in the parking lot of a Walmart Neighborhood Market, but there’s also a Torchy’s Taco right across the parking lot from us. There’s an Andy’s Frozen Yogurt, a Chick-fil-A, a barbecue restaurant across the street, and a Newk’s Sandwich Shop on the other corner. Could we be a hub to deliver those products as well?
At each hub we usually have around four to five people on shift at a time. There’s a shift lead, a hub manager, and then two to three others who rotate roles. In our hubs, we have basically three positions or roles. There’s a remote pilot in command, and that’s the one who’s flying the drone. Then we have a backup safety pilot who is operating on a different frequency, so if we lose connectivity or anything with the drone, he can step in and take over. We also have a visual observer who goes out to the delivery location, because right now the FAA requires us to keep the drone within our line of sight at all times. So we have the pilot on one end, and the visual observer at the location, so as the drone is flying the delivery, we have eyes on it from both ends. Because of this requirement, right now we deliver only within about a mile from a hub. We’re slowly working with the FAA to expand our operations.
How do you get the products to and from the drone?
From the time an order comes in to the time that we acknowledge it, right now we are having to go in and get the product from the store. We’re tracking each and every step. The time we go in and get the products, bring it back out to our hub, put it in the box, put the box on the drone, the drone goes out, and the time the drone comes back. We’re trying to stay under 30 minutes. That’s the goal. In most cases, our average is under that. We’re spending about probably 10 to 12 minutes of that time going into the Walmart and finding a product.
As for delivery, usually we’ll try to deliver to a front yard or a driveway. But sometimes the customer says, “Hey, we might not be home, so just drop it off in our backyard.” We look at the map and it shows just a plain open backyard, and then we get there and the people have added a pool—the map isn’t up to date. In that case our visual observer takes control and shifts to a safe delivery spot.
Also, we don’t ever land. The drone takes off and it’s carrying the package on a winch system. Once we get to the delivery location, we lower to what we call our delivery altitude of about 80 feet, and the remote pilot winches down the package, releases it, then winches back up and the drone flies home.
What qualifications do the people in the hub need?
Right now, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows anyone to go out and buy a drone, and there are two categories of drone operations: either recreational/hobbyists or commercial operators holding an FAA Part 107 license.
Having your FAA 107 basically means you can operate your drone for money, whether it’s actual pay or a trade in kind.
All of our hubs are within compliance of FAA Part 107. You only have to be 16 years old to sit for that exam and get that qualification and license, so students who are at least 16 can get two years of commercial drone operations underneath their belts by the time they graduate high school. By then they’re usually 18 years old, and our only two requirements to come work for us in a fulltime capacity is you have to be 18 and have your FAA Part 107.
There are clearly a lot of upsides to drone delivery, with more people shopping from home. What are some of the future challenges and obstacles?
Airspace is a big one. Here in Bentonville, we’re at Walmart Store 100, right across the street from Walmart headquarters and home office. To the other direction, we have Thaden Field, Bentonville Municipal Airport. It’s right in line with the parking lot at that Walmart, so it limits how high we can actually go. The FAA allows drones to go up to 400 feet, but because of Thaden Field we’re allowed to go no higher than 115 feet. That in turn limits how far we can see, because like a lot of older communities, Bentonville has very tall trees. We actually have marked off certain areas as no-fly zones because the trees prevent our keeping the delivery in the line of sight.
I think the future of the industry is a few different things. One, it must go beyond visualized lines of sight. That would allow us to go farther than just this one-mile radius so we can reach more customers. Another big thing would be for us to increase our load capacity. Right now the FAA says we have to stay under 55 pounds total, and our drone itself weighs between 34 and 40 pounds. We’ve put a 10-pound weight limit on the products we deliver, giving us just a little bit of wiggle room. In the future, as drones get lighter, we’ll be able to increase the weight for payload. Finally, we want to reach the point where pilots can be flying several drones at a time. At the moment, it’s one pilot, one drone.
That’s why I’m excited about working with the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences—there’s a world of opportunity for the software and programming side of things in relation to detect-and-avoid technology. To detect and avoid all types of manned aircraft as well as other drones in the airspace. Not to mention power lines.
At that point, we’ll be operating what we call UTM, for unmanned traffic management. As we start seeing more and more drones in the air, we’ll need a workforce of people who are really almost like air traffic controllers. There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for talented people to look at a screen and manage all these multiple aircraft at one time. Once we can get over these hurdles, we’ll start seeing more of a return on investment.