US retail giant Walmart has recently been granted a patent for using in-store drones to shuttle merchandise from one department to another.
According to the patent, a central computer system will “dispatch an airborne drone to an item of inventory” located within the shopping facility. The drone will then secure the item and carry it to a designated delivery area, where it will land and detach the item from its grasp.
Walmart says there is an increasing need in its stores to improve the “customer experience” where employees are not always available to assist customers. For example, many items are in the back storeroom and not visible. In this case, a customer can often experience a delay in service when there are no employees around to say “Yes, we have this item in stock but I need to grab it from the back”.
The company ultimately wants to increase the competitiveness of its brick-and-mortar stores with online outlets that have largely succeeded from low shipping prices and fast delivery rates. Of course, the patent approval is no guarantee that the company’s in-store technology will be approved, but it is gaining both interest and backlash from a variety of business professionals.
Chris Gately, a broker and realtor for Gately Properties, was not keen on the idea and is concerned for customer safety. “I can just imagine one of them buzzing around and getting caught in some poor lady’s hair,” he says. “I would also be concerned that someone might reach up to grab something right when a drone comes by.”
On the other hand, some say the proposal would work quite well in industrial warehouses. Yao-Yi Chiang, an expert on drones and assistant professor of research at the USC’s Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute, welcomes the company’s plan. “I think it’s a great idea, but maybe not within stores where you have customers,” he says. “I think it would work well in big warehouses, where you need to deliver an item from one place to another.”