By Tim Ryan

DroneUp, the company we should all know and love and responsible for drone deliveries at Walmart, announced a partnership with aviation safety firm Iris Automation to develop an air traffic control system for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). This partnership could pave the way for beyond-visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights, which has been a challenge for the companies so far.

DroneUp and Walmart’s service does not rely on a Part 135 waiver from the FAA, which allows for BVLOS flights in certain cases. Instead, they’ve opted for a 1.5-mile delivery radius within the visual range of operators. However, their partnership with Iris Automation indicates more ambitious plans.

Iris Automation’s ground-based detect-and-alert system, Casia G, will be deployed across a network of nodes within DroneUp’s delivery areas, functioning similarly to cell towers. These nodes will communicate airspace traffic data to improve BVLOS visibility, leveraging artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to detect approaching aircraft up to 1.75 miles away. The range becomes unlimited in a multi-node network like the one proposed by DroneUp.

Stationing Iris’ technology at launch and recovery points and throughout delivery zones, DroneUp could create a rudimentary air traffic control system for drones that detects, classifies, and issues alerts for aircraft entering the operating area, making BVLOS flights inherently safer.

With the FAA yet to establish regulatory standards for BVLOS flights, companies like Zipline have managed to operate via individual waivers or approvals. DroneUp could follow suit by demonstrating its airspace visibility system in controlled environments or flying in areas with more lenient BVLOS restrictions.

Currently, DroneUp and Walmart operate out of 36 store-based hubs across seven states, serving around four million eligible customers. In 2022, they made about 6,000 deliveries. The collaboration with Iris could expand their delivery radius and reach exponentially more customers, enabling more Walmart stores, particularly those in dense urban areas, to serve as drone delivery hubs.

Before realizing these possibilities, DroneUp must prove the legitimacy of its airspace visibility system to the FAA. If successful, the Walmart-DroneUp network could vastly surpass their 2022 figures and revolutionize drone deliveries.