Airborne groceries? Tesco to trial drone deliveries

The supermarket chain is teaming up with a drone start-up to deliver groceries faster.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor on
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Forgot to buy eggs for your breakfast omelette during your last round of grocery shopping? You might soon be spared the early pyjama trip to the corner shop. 

That is, if you live in the Irish town of Oranmore, near Galway, where UK supermarket chain Tesco has announced that trials will soon kick-off to deliver small packages straight to customers' homes using drones. 

The retail giant has partnered with Irish start-up Manna, which provides custom-developed drones and provides a "drone delivery as-a-service" platform. A six-month trial is due to start next month in Ireland, where Manna has a license to operate, to deliver on-demand small baskets to customers within 30 minutes to an hour of ordering. 

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Tesco expects the "small baskets" market to exceed £10 billion ($12.8 billion) in the coming years.

The supermarket chain announced the news during a virtual event about disruptive innovation, during which drone delivery was discussed as part of the company's efforts to implement new technologies in its services.

Dave Lewis, the supermarket's chief executive, said: "A strong pipeline of innovation is essential in ensuring we can anticipate and respond to our customers' needs, and we believe there is an opportunity now to welcome even more innovation into our business, and to do it faster."

Manna's drones fly at an altitude of 80 metres and a speed of over 80 kilometers per hour, which the company says enables delivery times of less than three minutes within a two kilometre radius.

Last February, Manna partnered with food ordering platform Just Eat to trial the three-minute delivery promise to students and lecturers on the University College Dulin (UCD) campus. After UCD's campus closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the startup teamed up with Ireland's health authority to deliver prescriptions instead.

"They have already proven the capability," said Lewis. "The question is how do we take that capability and apply it to Tesco? And that's the detail that's being worked on now before we get to the trial."

The past years have seen retailers increasingly turning their attention to drone delivery as a way to reduce delivery times and avoid the complications of road delivery.

Amazon has been experimenting in the drone space as part of its dedicated unit Prime Air. In 2016, the e-tailer made its first commercial drone delivery in the UK, which landed only 13 minutes after the order was placed.

SEE: Amazon's Prime Air drone delivery system earns key FAA certification

For now, Tesco's trials with airborne logistics will be limited to its store in Oranmore. If they are successful, though, the company is hoping to expand the plans to more customers.

Claire Lorains, group innovation director, said: "If our trial with Manna is successful, we really think there is an opportunity to reach many customers through our stores extending via a drone service".

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