Despite rain, Kroger launches historic first commercial drone flight

Never mind the rain. The Kroger Co. took flight with its first retail drone delivery Wednesday morning in Centerville, flying a box containing two packages of long-grain rice to Centerville Mayor Brooks Compton on the front lawn of city offices on West Spring Valley Pike.

Also delivered with the rice — a piece of cloth from the first Wright Brothers Flyer, shared by the Wright family and the Dayton History organization.

After the drone lightly dropped the box on the lawn of city hall, Compton opened the package, pronouncing himself proud “to be part of this community, the birthplace of aviation.”

The flight was historic, participants said. Ethan Grob, Kroger’s director of last-mile strategy and product, and Beth Flippo, principal engineer for TELEGRID, the New Jersey company piloting the drones, said that with the exception of test flights in Centerville to “friends and family” of Kroger employees, this was the first official commercial drone delivery of a grocery purchase.

Kroger has not done this anywhere else, Grob said.

For the time being, there is no charge for delivery via drones. Kroger will begin and accepting orders from customers living within a mile of the Kroger Marketplace store at 1095 S. Main St.

“For the pilot (program), we’re going to have three live (drones) at a time,” Grob said Wednesday. “But if you think about it, at scale, we should be able to serve as many customer orders that are coming in, within that immediate time slot, right now within a mile of the store, and we hope to expand that going forward.”

Flights will carry curated, pre-packaged orders weighing five to 10 pounds, but probably weighing closer to five pounds, he said. The area of flight is prescribed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We’ll be able to expand that radius as we grow and get more flight hours,” Grob said.

The drones are flying beyond the line of a pilot’s visual line of sight, with the pilot assisting and operating the drones mostly during take-offs and landings.

The inaugural flight was not conducted around TELEGRID’s New Jersey headquarters or Kroger’s Cincinnati headquarters. There are good reasons for that, participants said.

Beyond-visual-line-of-sight control of drones — sometimes called “BVLOS” ―is not new to the Dayton area. In the spring of 2019, the FAA granted Air Force Research Laboratory a certificate of authorization to test defense-related drone technology without reliance on a visual observer or chase aircraft in and around Springfield.

“It’s in the backyard of Kroger,” Grob said. “It’s in the backyard of the birthplace of aviation. It’s a really, really awesome story to bring it here to this community, and all the conditions are right — population density, geography, topography, all those kinds of things.”

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