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Robots pack orders and drones deliver groceries: Is this the future of food shopping?

When NBC News' Vicky Nguyen decided to make cupcakes, a drone dropped all the ingredients she needed in the backyard.
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to the way Americans go grocery shopping there have been incredible changes over the past year. With more shoppers relying on getting their goods delivered straight to their homes, the entire industry has had to innovate to keep pace. NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen took a look behind the scenes at the high-tech deliveries by the nation’s largest grocery company.

“Shopping from the comfort of your home has never been easier,” said Nguyen. Over the past year, companies like Instacart, FreshDirect and Amazon were bringing supplies right to peoples’ doors during the pandemic. Even traditional grocery chains stepped up their services.

“Monthly grocery delivery sales increased 380% from half a billion dollars before the pandemic to 2.4 billion in May,” said Nguyen.

To keep up with the exploding demand, Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, is building high-tech fulfillment centers across the country. Inside “The Hive,” located in Ohio, 800 robots zip around a grid, packing up to 20,000 online orders daily for anyone within a 90 mile radius.

“Stacked all the way from the floor to the ceiling are 21 levels of totes,” said general manager Matthew Davis, describing the lower level of the facility. “And so in those totes are products ranging from bread, apples, diapers, anything that you could want.”

The robots can pick and pack a family’s entire order in five to ten minutes, said Nguyen. “Everything that you would do walking up to a grocery store, all of that is being maintained and happening through these bots,” said Davis.

It’s not just bots doing the work. About 400 humans are involved in the process as well.

Once the bots pick out the groceries, the order gets dropped down a chute to an associate. Then the food rolls down a conveyor belt where more humans are waiting to sort them for delivery. Outside a fleet of trucks awaits the orders. Frozen and refrigerated items are loaded first in a special cold compartment followed by the rest. Finally, the driver heads out to deliver each order. Right now the delivery fee is 10 dollars but Kroger says no tips are expected.

It’s not just robots. Kroger has launched a drone delivery service for customers within a one mile radius of their store near Dayton, Ohio.

“Right now customers in that delivery area can go to this website and order a specialized bundle to be delivered right to their yard,” said Nguyen.

Offerings include a "headache bundle" with pain medication and a sports drink, "s’mores" with graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate and "movie night" with popcorn, soft drinks and candy. For now, deliveries are free. Nguyen decided to try the “cupcake bundle.” After she ordered, her items were packed and placed on the drone, which has a five-pound weight limit. Then, the drone took to the skies, navigated by a pilot. It hovered over the yard and made the drop.

“The frosting, my cupcake mix and my butter — still cold,” said Nguyen.