DroneUp takes off
Aerial drone firm partners with Walmart, adds 650+ jobs
Virginia Beach’s DroneUp LLC is riding the leading edge of the unmanned aerial vehicle industry wave.
Founded in 2016, the company, which specializes in commercial drone delivery, flight services and software, has grown its ranks from three to 530 employees. Retail giant Walmart Inc. is a new partner, and DroneUp is close to completing a $7 million expansion at its headquarters.
In an August 2022 news conference with Gov. Glenn Youngkin, DroneUp announced it was taking off in a big way, adding 655 jobs as part of an expansion that will include establishing a $20 million drone testing, training and research and development center at Richard Bland College in Dinwiddie County. DroneUp plans to add 510 jobs in Virginia Beach and 145 positions at the Richard Bland center.
“Virginia is extremely fortunate that we have DroneUp here because they have really put the industry on the map as far as the drone technology goes and package delivery,” says Tracy Tynan, director of the Unmanned Systems Center at Virginia Innovation Partnership Corp., a state- affiliated nonprofit that supports emerging companies and technologies in the commonwealth through grant programs and strategic initiatives.
DroneUp’s “growth has been amazing,” says David Bowles, executive director of the Virginia Institute for Spaceflight & Autonomy at Old Dominion University. “They’re a model, I think, of what you can do.”
DroneUp CEO Tom Walker says the pandemic was one factor in DroneUp’s recent growth. During lockdown, when people couldn’t congregate or travel, drones offered a remote solution for ongoing needs.
“When COVID-19 first hit, it was a very, very unfortunate thing for society and for the nation, but it was a very positive thing for our industry,” he says. “We still needed to do roof inspections and cell tower inspections and infrastructure inspections. … We were able to deploy drones to do those inspections that traditionally they’d not used them for.”
DroneUp’s recently inked deal with Walmart is another contributing factor to the company’s growth, Walker says. A contract to build out Walmart’s drone delivery network was announced in December 2021 and package delivery was offered at three Walmart locations in the retailer’s home state of Arkansas. In May 2022, DroneUp and Walmart announced plans to expand drone delivery services to reach 4 million homes across six states with drone hubs operating from 34 U.S. Walmart sites. Three hubs are located at Virginia Beach Walmart locations, with a 1-mile delivery range for up to 10-pound packages. Walmart has a minority stake in DroneUp, as well as two seats on DroneUp’s board.
The DroneUp Flight Academy at Richard Bland College is already preparing the next generations of the company’s flight engineers. As of December 2022, Richard Bland had trained 170 full-time DroneUp employees.
Richard Bland President Debbie Sydow says she’s excited the college is part of DroneUp’s workforce development pipeline. Trainees are not only prepped to make deliveries for DroneUp but they also earn 12 college credits in courses such as Small Uncrewed Aerial Systems I and II, Components & Maintenance, and Remote Pilot Ground School.
“These students are getting prepared to do a specific job, but they’re also accruing college credit and hopefully continuing to build their list of credentials that allow them to continue to grow in this field,” Sydow says.
The college’s rural location offers plenty of open sky for drone training, Walker says, as well as available classroom space and student housing. “It had all of the facilities we needed.”
A delivery hub has been set up at the school and 1,000 workers are expected to graduate by the end of this year.
Sydow says having DroneUp on campus aligns with similar partnerships the school already has with advanced manufacturers. Walker says it has also created an opportunity to expose currently enrolled students to a new industry. Discussions are underway on how to expand DroneUp’s training program to existing college students.
“We’re looking at all those ways that we can really turn this into a major resource [for Virginia] that will go well beyond the kinds of uses that are part of what DroneUp is doing now,” Sydow says. “And DroneUp is fully supportive of that.”