March 26--Don't be surprised if one day soon you hear a buzzing overhead while you're buying socks or laundry detergent at your neighborhood Walmart.
The mega retailer has been granted a patent to use in-store drones to shuttle merchandise from one department to another. The company believes the small, unmanned aircraft systems would increase efficiency and in some cases eliminate the need for employees to traverse the entire length of its massive stores to move items around.
"In a modern retail store environment, there is a need to improve the customer experience and/or convenience for the customer," Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wrote in its patent filing. "Unfortunately, there may not always be enough employees available to assist customers in as timely a manner as the customer might wish."
Increasing competition from online retailers and alternate store formats make it imperative that brick-and-mortar stores be as efficient as possible, the company said, with a strong focus on "the overall customer experience."
A patent approval is no guarantee that Walmart's in-store technology will be approved as many patents that are filed by businesses are never put to use.
Chris Gately, broker/Realtor for Gately Properties in Santa Clarita, wasn't keen on the idea of drones invading his space at Walmart stores.
"It sounds horrible," he said. "Drones aren't very quiet and I can just imagine one of them buzzing around and getting caught in some poor lady's hair. I'd also be concerned that someone might reach up to grab something right when a drone comes by."
Still, Gately said his company has made use of the unmanned aircraft systems.
"They are a good tool for the right kind of property," he said. "They can get good aerial photography of a property like a vineyard. That really makes sense because it gives you something you wouldn't get from the ground level. They can also be used inside a home to get a nice floating view of the rooms."
In its patent application filed in September, Walmart said the drones would be controlled by a central computer system that would essentially function as an air traffic control center. The unmanned aircraft would fly using everything from onboard sensors and video cameras to gyroscopes and magnetometers to detect obstacles along the way. The drones would primarily be routed over shelves as opposed to store aisles to avoid buzzing over customers' heads.
Drone landing zones would be set up throughout the stores with some in plain sight and others that would be hidden.
Burt Flickinger III, managing director for the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, doesn't like the idea.
"It's very dangerous at this point with drones not being federally regulated," he said. "This would be too much of a public safety risk. Walmart just needs to allocate more work hours for more people so they can keep their stores sufficiently stocked."
Not everyone is a skeptic.
Yao-Yi Chiang, an assistant professor of research at the USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute and an expert on drones, likes Walmart's plan. But his enthusiasm comes with a caveat.
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"I think it's a great idea but maybe not within stores where you have customers," he said. "I think it would work well in big warehouses where you need to deliver an item from one place to another."
Chiang said companies like Amazon are already using robotic vehicles to fetch merchandise off of shelves in their huge fulfillment centers.
"I would call that the first generation of routing," he said. "It's where you need a track imbedded in the floor that guides the vehicles. Volkswagen has this, too."
Walmart is not the first retailer that has turned to drones to boost efficiency.
Amazon's Prime Air drone made its first package delivery in December in England. That retail technology hadn't been seen stateside until earlier this week at Amazon's MARS 2017 conference at a Palm Springs resort, according to GeekWire.com.
The drone's delivery technique involved the airborne transport of a box containing a bottle of sunscreen. Amazon is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to create a packaged delivery system using unmanned drones.
In its newly released annual aerospace forecast, which includes projections for the use of drones, the FAA projects that between the end of 2016 and 2021 the number of commercially used drones will increase from 42,000 to 442,000 with the possibility of as many as 1.6 million in use.
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