Kroger begins free drone deliveries in Centerville Wednesday, launching new era

The first drone deliveries will be free, but for a limited time, Kroger said.

Drone-flown deliveries of groceries will start Wednesday in an area within a mile of Kroger’s Centerville store, signaling a new era in flight and grocery shopping.

The Kroger Co. has been working with a Monroe company, Drone Express, to deliver groceries via drones, and actual flights responding to customer orders will start happening this week.

Erin Rolfes, a spokeswoman for Kroger, on Monday said drone flights have been tested for several days, and deliveries will be ready to go on Wednesday.

For the first pilot program, no charge will be levied for these flights, Rolfes said. But that’s temporary. At some point, there will be charges, but Rolfes did not have a date for that.

Drone orders can be made through a web site, Deliveries will be scheduled first come, first served.

“While of course we’re all very excited about the drone piece, I think it’s one part of a larger narrative of how Kroger is really reacting to what customers are asking for and giving them that product anytime that they want, anywhere that they are,” Rolfes said.

The drone can carry only about five pounds worth of items. Pilots will oversee the drones as they fly to customer’s homes in the prescribed area around the Marketplace store at 1095 S. Main St.

“Right now, per FAA guidance, we’re only flying the drone to deliver within one mile of the store,” Rolfes said.

Kroger and Drone Express, part of New Jersey-based TELEGRID Technologies Inc., last month first announced the pilot program to offer grocery delivery via autonomous drones.

“Everything’s going well,” said Beth Flippo, principal engineer for the Drone Express delivery service. “Wednesday we are good to go.”

The company has about 10 pilots working in Monroe and Centerville at the moment, Flippo said. The pilots work in shifts at the Centerville store, covering nights and weekends, she said.

“It won’t be perfect day one, but it will be pretty close,” Flippo said. “We’re just very excited. It’s a huge step forward for aviation.”

Drone Express/TELEGRID has established a presence in Monroe and will serve as a hub for the manufacturing, testing and piloting of autonomous drones for commercial package delivery.

Drone Express has estimated that it will need to fill 50 to 100 full-time positions as its 7,200 square-foot Monroe facility becomes operational in coming weeks.

Positions in Monroe 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.

TELEGRID first tested a drone-package-delivery service that can be operated beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight in Springfield late last summer.

The test was successful enough that TELEGRID principals were then examining opening a division in Ohio, Flippo told this newspaper last September.

Springfield is one of the few places nationally where such tests — beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight, sometimes called BVLOS — can take place.

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