Wal-Mart was granted a patent this week for a system in which drones would shuttle products between different departments inside its stores. This scenario would free customers from having to walk across its stores to find what they want and from having to wait while employees return from far-away storerooms. Ultimately, Wal-Mart believes that drones “can greatly improve the customer experience without overburdening the human associates of the facility.” As part of the drone delivery system, each store would have a computer system that would function as automated air traffic control for dispatching drones and deciding their flight paths. Sensors on the drones would help them avoid obstacles. Several drone landing zones would be created in stores, some of which would be in plain sight of customers while others may be hidden from view. Drones may use nets or hooks to grab and carry items, depending on the product’s shape and weight. If needed, employees would attach items to drones after getting specific instructions text messages or an app.
Total Retail’s Take: Wal-Mart’s proposed drone delivery system is different from other high-profile drone delivery projects by Amazon.com, Google parent company Alphabet, and UPS. Those initiatives involve drones delivering goods to people’s homes. Drone experts generally say that such delivery systems are years away because of factors like federal regulations, limited drone battery life, and the high cost of larger drones that are capable of traveling long distances. A recent Gartner report, however, said that businesses could soon start using drones to deliver goods within their own facilities, something akin to what Wal-Mart is proposing. Of course, Wal-Mart’s new patent is no guarantee that it will use drones. Companies file patents all the time, and not every one of them is put into use.