Kroger to test drone service at Centerville store with Monroe company

Flights will be tested in Centerville this week.

Kroger is working with a Monroe company to deliver groceries via drones, with testing set to begin soon in Centerville — and new jobs are expected as a result.

The Kroger Co. and Drone Express on Monday announced a pilot program to offer grocery delivery via autonomous drones.

New Jersey-based Drone Express has established in Monroe and will serve as a hub for the manufacturing, testing and piloting of autonomous drones for commercial package delivery, a representative of the company told this media outlet.

Drone Express estimates that it will need to fill 50 to 100 full-time positions as its 7,200 square-foot Monroe facility becomes fully operational in the next few months.

Positions include those focused on manufacturing, mechanical engineering, software development and aviation. As the pilot program with Kroger continues to expand, there is the potential for additional positions and hiring throughout 2021 and beyond.

Drone Express/Kroger image
Drone Express/Kroger image

Referred to as “The Hive,” the Monroe facility is expected to be one of the largest in Ohio dedicated to the manufacture, testing and piloting of drones for commercial use.

Drone Express will commence test flights this week near the Kroger Marketplace in Centerville, at 1095 South Main St. The flights will be managed by licensed Drone Express pilots from an on-site trailer with additional off-site monitoring.

There will be real geographic limits to the delivery area in the service’s early stages, Beth Flippo, chief technology officer of TELEGRID, said in an interview Monday. (Drone Express is a division of TELEGRID.)

Drone Express will not be allowed to fly beyond a drone controller’s visual line of sight until the company obtains the necessary Federal Aviation Administration certification. She declined to state an exact or even an estimated distance for that limit, but the company can, if it must, deliver packages to a Drone Express employee who can then take the package the rest of the way to a customer outside that limit.

“If we have to take it the rest of the way, we will,” Flippo said.

Until the company can prove its drones are able to detect and avoid manned aircraft, such as medical evacuation helicopters, the service must be confined to a visual line of sight area, she said.

Kroger is notifying customers within about a mile around the Centerville store of these first drone deliveries. Flippo referred to Kroger on questions about how those notifications will work and who will be notified. (Kroger spokeswoman Erin Rolfes said her company will send direct mailers to those within a one-mile radius of the company’s Centerville store to give residents information on the service.)

“Dayton is a great place to test in because it’s big sky country,” she said.

Drone Express/Kroger image
Drone Express/Kroger image

Many if not most of the packages that Amazon delivers to homes are about five pounds or less, Flippo said. Customers are already used to home delivery of packages of this size, Flippo said.

“It gives brick-and-motor stores such a leg up ... It really is going put shopping local back on the map,” she said

Customers will choose destinations on their photos “In the beginning, we’re going to try the front yard,” Flippo said.

The Monroe facility will be home to the company’s unmanned air traffic control center. There, employees will oversee drone flights and commercial delivery programs, according to Drone Express. The center is in contact with Drone Express mobile aviation trailers that house the drone pilots and are located onsite where drone delivery is being offered.

Right now, the company has about five people at its Monroe location, Flippo said. Drone Express is looking to hire technicians, supply chain people, drone pilots and many others.

“Kroger wants as many stores as we can give them in the first year,” Flippo said.

Customer deliveries are scheduled to begin later this spring, and a second pilot is scheduled to launch this summer at a Ralphs store in California.

“Kroger’s new drone delivery pilot is part of the evolution of our rapidly growing and innovative e-commerce business — which includes pickup, delivery, and ship and reached more than $10 billion in sales in 2020,” Kroger’s Jody Kalmbach, group vice president of product experience, said in a joint release from Kroger and TELEGRID. “The pilot reinforces the importance of flexibility and immediacy to customers, powered by modern and efficient last-mile solutions. We’re excited to test drone delivery and gain insights that will inform expansion plans as well as future customer solutions.”

The current weight limit for drone delivery is about five pounds.

As an example of the service possible, Kroger will offer a baby care bundle with wipes and formula, a child wellness bundle with over-the-counter medications and fluids, and a S’mores bundle with graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate. Using https://www.kroger.com/dronedelivery, customers can place orders and have eligible orders delivered within as little as 15 minutes.

“The launch of the pilot in Centerville is the culmination of months of meticulous research and development by Kroger and Drone Express to better serve and meet the needs of our customers,” said Ethan Grob, Kroger’s director of last mile strategy and product. “We look forward to progressing from test flights to customer deliveries this spring, introducing one more way for our customers to experience Kroger.”

“Kroger and Drone Express made a great choice in piloting this program in Centerville — a community with a robust business network focused on progress and stability near the birthplace of aviation,” said Centerville Mayor Brooks Compton. “Families here have the power to transform grocery delivery around the nation and the globe. We look forward to placing our first order.”