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March 19, 2017

Heads up: Walmart patent filing points to in-store drones that deliver products

by John_A

Why it matters to you

If in-store drones become a thing, you may want to stay out of drone flight lines.

The days of walking from the entrance all the way to the back of a Walmart superstore for a printer cartridge or photo order may be coming to an end.

You’ve heard about Walmart’s ideas for self-driving shopping carts and in-store automation to take over human jobs. Now you can add to those concepts fleets of drones that fly inside the company’s superstores to fetch and deliver your products to the checkout area. Walmart has a new patent filing for drones that only fly within retail locations, as reported by Fortune.

Whether Walmart will actually implement in-store drones remains to be seen — companies often file for patents to protect ideas they never use. The path to indoor systems avoids many of the challenges of residential delivery drones, however. Drones that fly outside to deliver to homes must comply with federal regulations. Home delivery drones have to be large and powerful enough to travel from distribution points to people’s homes. In-store drones, however, have fewer restrictions.

More: The US Air Force now has more drone operator jobs than traditional pilot jobs

Walmart’s patent for a “Method to Carry an Item within a Retail Shopping Facility” involves eight steps. First, the drone receives the request and flies to the appropriate area. The drone must detect and secure the correct merchandise. It next flies to the delivery area where it lands and releases the item. Finally, the drone flies away to await the next request.

Wondering about safety? The patent abstract states, “In a typical application setting the flight path of the airborne drone will not include any traversals of open space.” Digging into the details reveals how the drones will avoid flying over customers’ heads.

“Since the airborne drone is moving higher than many of the obstacles in the retail shopping facility (such as people, shelves, and various product displays), to some extent a flight path can at least approximate a straight line.” Basically, the plan is for the drones to travel over the display shelving and avoid the aisles between product displays to “provide an increased feeling of security for those below.”

If only one person in the store wanted just one item, the drone system would be easy to picture in operation. But imagine the flurry of drones if 100 shoppers each had a list of 5 to 30 items. Unless drones have onboard collision avoidance capability, the flight control requirements for hundreds of drones flying all over the store and returning to one delivery area might offer a new career path for ardent gamers.

Many interesting questions are provoked by the concept of Walmart in-store drones sharing shopping aisles with humans. How would the goods be arranged for easy drone retrieval? Would customers have to compete with drones for the last can of tuna or would Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics about not injuring a human or allowing harm through inaction apply? We may well have our answers soon enough.

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