Papa John’s tests pizza delivery by drone in Powder Springs

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Papa John’s tests pizza delivery by drone in Powder Springs

Pizza lovers who live in a small pocket of Powder Springs have an unusual option right now to get their pie: Delivery by drone.

A Papa John’s location in the suburb west of Atlanta is running a pilot test of drone delivery to customers who live close to the store and choose the option when ordering online. The pizza company is part of a raft of businesses — from Amazon to UPS to Walmart— trying delivery by drone or autonomous devices.

But Papa John’s air drops are far from becoming widely available. It’s a single store test and flights must be within line of sight, so the drone deliveries that started last month are limited to within a mile of the store during the day. The drone option is also only available for single-pizza orders.

Papa John’s, which has its Atlanta headquarters at The Battery next to Truist Park, is partnering with Dayton, Ohio-based Drone Express for the drone delivery pilot project.

Drone Express CEO Beth Flippo said a pizza delivery by drone can draw crowds. The customer who ordered it can track the delivery, which she said typically takes up to 15 minutes.

“When you fly into that neighborhood, it’s like a concert let out,” she said. “People run out onto the streets.”

Drone Express has a pilot and a visual observer handling each drone takeoff. The pizza is wrapped in a disposable hot bag and tethered to the drone in a parking lot, while another Drone Express staff member waits at the house, where the pizza is lowered to the ground by a winch from about 15 feet in the air.

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The Drone Express control room will monitor the drone from departure to the final destination when the new Papa John's new delivery program is running. The latest drone delivery service to customers will run to the public in the following weeks. Thursday, June 16, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Drone Express control room will monitor the drone from departure to the final destination when the new Papa John's new delivery program is running. The latest drone delivery service to customers will run to the public in the following weeks. Thursday, June 16, 2022.  Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
The Drone Express control room will monitor the drone from departure to the final destination when the new Papa John's new delivery program is running. The latest drone delivery service to customers will run to the public in the following weeks. Thursday, June 16, 2022. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The pizza can be dropped into the front yard, the driveway or the backyard, Flippo said. “Usually there’s a lot of people on the lawn telling us where they want it,” she said.

Papa John’s chose the location at 4400 Brownsville Rd. in Powder Springs because it’s a company-owned store and has a large number of homes nearby, said the company’s vice president of digital engineering services Yasaswi Pulavarti. Still, there are only a small number of drone deliveries a day, he said.

“This is all about learning and building for the future,” Pulavarti said. “We think of this as an experiment.” He said the goal is to get the pizza to a customer’s front door faster, particularly amid “growing traffic and suburban sprawl,” while keeping it hot and fresh.

During the Papa John’s pilot test, there’s no delivery fee, but if it is deployed for regular service there would be some basic fee for drone delivery, Pulavarti said.

While Pulavarti said the Powder Springs store is well-staffed, some see drones as a potential way to mitigate staffing issues in the future, such as delivery driver shortages.

“There are labor shortages, there are higher gas prices,” said Kevin Carfa, vice president of digital for Papa John’s. “This is a solution that hits on some of those problems.”

The pizza drone test runs, which have been running for a couple of months, will continue for a few more weeks. Then, Papa John’s plans to review the results for the rest of the year before moving forward on a strategy. A key restriction is Federal Aviation Administration regulations that limit where drones can fly, how far they can go and what they can be used for.

“There’s definitely a lot of additional problems to solve,” Pulavarti said. “It’s not ready for total prime time at the moment.”