From The Virginian-Pilot By

Two DroneUp employees work on a delivery drone being used by Walmart at its Farmington, Arkansas, store. The retail giant recently invested in the Virginia Beach company to help assemble its drone delivery network. (Courtesy photo)

Drone delivery is coming — and a Hampton Roads company might make your first order possible.

DroneUp, a Virginia Beach app developer and drone services provider, recently landed a deal with the largest retailer in the world. Walmart is now using DroneUp technology to launch a drone delivery service at three northwest Arkansas locations, with more to come. As part of the deal, DroneUp is looking to hire hundreds of people within the next year.

The Walmart deal is a big milestone for the 5-year-old company, DroneUp founder and CEO Tom Walker said. The agreement will allow DroneUp to create delivery hubs for store locations across the country.

“It was a very strategic and significant investment that is enabling us to do acquisitions and growth and hiring, and we’re very pleased with the partnership and with their investment,” Walker said.

What the partnership means for Walmart customers, in Arkansas at least, is the ability to order delivery online and have a drone zip over with their items in as quickly as a half-hour. After placing an order, Walmart workers pack the items, and a drone pilot flies the package over to the customer’s home.

“The consumers love it,” Walker said.

The service is currently only available at the Walmart in Farmington, Arkansas, and will expand to two other Arkansas locations in the next few months.

“When we invested in DroneUp earlier this year, we envisioned a drone delivery operation that could be quickly executed and replicated across multiple stores,” Tom Ward, Walmart senior vice president of last-mile, said in a news release. “Opening our first hub within months of our initial concept showcases DroneUp’s ability to safely execute drone delivery operations with speed.”

As DroneUp expands, it will also be staffing up. Walker said he would like to grow from 100 current employees to 1,000 by the end of 2022. Some will be pilots while others will work at the Virginia Beach headquarters in training, human resources and other areas. DroneUp spokeswoman Amy Wiegand said around 60% of the positions would be based in Hampton Roads.

Walmart leaders expressed interest in DroneUp after the startup completed delivery tests for medical supplies in June 2020 in Lawrenceville, Virginia, Walker said. The retail giant tested out the service delivering COVID tests in a few markets, then signed a contract with DroneUp after a few months of negotiations.

DroneUp isn’t the only investment Walmart is making in new delivery options. The company made a similar deal with the self-driving car company Cruise in April.

John Paris, an attorney with Williams Mullen and an early DroneUp supporter, said he believes the company has the power to become a national delivery force and a Hampton Roads success story. He said the company has good relationships with community leaders and the Federal Aviation Administration. The latter is important because the delivery drones must be authorized to fly over humans by the FAA.

The drones may eventually pay off for the environment as well, creating a world with “a lot less trucks, a lot less gas, a lot less carbon,” and other benefits, Paris said.

Walker declined to say how much Walmart has invested in DroneUp. Paris, who represents the company as outside counsel, said the homegrown firm has raised about $17 million from local investors.

Trevor Metcalfe, 757-222-5345,