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The first hurdle in construction and use of a drone launch pad at the Walmart Neighborhood Market was crossed as city planners approved requests from Walmart and Zipline Tuesday at the Planning Commission meeting.

Benoit Miquel, project manager for Zipline, the company partnering with Walmart, presented the proposed project that includes construction of an elevated launch pad on the northwest corner of the Walmart store on Slack Street. The platform is planned to be 25 feet high as its a prototype for platforms at supercenters which have 25-feet high rooflines. The roofline at Pea Ridge is 20 feet high.

"The idea is that a customer places an order on an app," Miquel said. "The customer is kept aware of the location of the package and notified when it's about to be delivered.

"That's the delivery experience we want to bring here and start off here in northwest Arkansas. That's something people have been wanting for a while," he said.

He said the project is focusing on "health and wellness" and "off-the-shelf items."

"There will be no prescription items for the time being," Miquel said.

Pea Ridge's city building inspector asked whether the service will be a subscription service offered by Walmart.

Miquel deferred to Walmart spokesman, Michael Lindsey, public affairs director.

"That has yet to be determined," Lindsey said. "All of this is so new."

The drone, which Miquel referred to as a "zip," is fully autonomous, electrically powered and has a 10-foot wing span.

"We will not fly until we get all the FAA approvals," Miquel said, explaining the company will go through the same process as Boeing as they manufacture and engineer the equipment and the same process as United or Delta as they fly their own zips.

He said communication with local air traffic controllers is essential and permission to launch will always be requested.

"The zips follow predetermined routes," he said, adding there are no cameras on board the zips, which can carry up to 3.9 pounds. "Total weight with a package is 45 pounds."

"All critical systems have redundancy," Miquel said, in answer to questions from city officials. "We have an emergency parachute which allows landing softly -- an alternative landing."

Flight altitude will be 300 to 400 feet and said the noise level is loudest at launching, but will not be loud enough to be distracting to nearby residents, Miquel said. The return of the zip is similar to an aircraft carrier with the zip being caught with a landing line.

Planning Commissioner Greg Pickens, who flies drones, said the likelihood anyone would be able to hear the noise from the fixed-wing drones is minimal, unlike the noise created by "quad copters" like drones most people use.

Planning Commissioner Tony Byars asked whether the drones would affect wildlife.

Miquel said the zips fly "under the speed which could impact birds. We're not subject to bird strikes."

The target date depends on regulatory approval, saying once the building permit is issued, construction could take two to three months. Miquel estimated the start date as "sometime between now and the close future."

"This focuses on a completely new customer delivery experience," Miquel said, explaining that delivery could be within 30 minutes of the order on the app. "This provides a much better experience, where person can determine exactly what time package can be at house. It's very applicable to people who need meds at a certain time."

Zipline is a "drone logistics company" based in south San Francisco with 400 employees globally at seven sites, Miquel said. The company has a site in Kannapolis, N.C., a research site in California and sites in both east and west Africa.

Accompanying Miquel to the Planning Commission were Lindsey and Scott Schallhorn, attorney with Mitchell Williams, representing Zipline.

Walmart began testing drone delivery of groceries and household goods in Fayetteville, N.C., in September, partnering with Israeli drone delivery firm Flytrex. Its drones can carry up to 6.6 pounds for 3.5 miles, cruising at 32 mph at an altitude of 230 feet.

On Sept. 14, Walmart said it will start drone delivery of health and wellness products from a Walmart store near its headquarters early next year. It was to work with Zipline to deliver select health and wellness products from a Walmart store near its Bentonville headquarters. The service could potentially expand to include general merchandise, the company said. Zipline's drones can deliver to homes within a 50-mile radius of its base.

Then in late September, Walmart started a pilot project in North Las Vegas using drones to deliver covid-19 self-collection test kits to customers' homes. Walmart added Cheektowaga, N.Y., to the program in October. The retailer is working with drone services provider DroneUp for the trials.

The company said, if the trials are successful, it will look to expand the use of drones to other areas.

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