Amazon, Walmart drone concepts coming down to earth
- Amazon has been issued a patent for delivery drones that can react to humans on the ground, The Washington Post reported. The patent describes drones that can act in response to such human signals as screaming voices, thumbs up signs and frantic arm waving.
- While Amazon is focused on the skies, many of the patents applied for by Walmart bring drone technology into stores, according to Gizmodo. One is for a sensing device for shopping carts that can communicate with a mobile device.
- Walmart has also applied for a patent that tracks shoppers through wearable technology, according to Gizmodo. Others drones dreamed up by Walmart would help manage and sense inventory levels, and assist customers in stores. For example, the drone could be summoned by a customer's mobile device and provide assistance such as price verification or navigation to products.
The two retailers' drone plans illustrate the breadth of applications of drone technology under consideration. While Amazon is intent on shortening delivery times to 30 minutes or less, Walmart wants to use them to provide customer service — among other things — in its vast Supercenters. Walmart also applied for a number of other patents last week and recently applied for six patents for drones to be used in farming, including a "bee robot" drone for pollination.
Amazon's new patent is intended to help the drones when they encounter humans, either bystanders or customers waiting at their doors, The Washington Post reported. The patent said the drone can adjust its behavior depending on various gestures, such as a welcoming thumbs up, shouting or frantic arm waving. Depending on human gestures, the machine could either release the package it's carrying, alter its flight path to avoid crashing, ask humans a question or abort the delivery, according to the patent.
Amazon has applied for a number of different drone patents that indicate the company is preparing for a variety of operating and regulatory environments, according to a report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.
"We know that the drones will have a range of at least 15 miles or more, that they could complete deliveries in 15 minutes or less ... and that the aircraft could carry items weighing up to five pounds," the report authors said. "But that's about it."
Amazon has been filing drone patent applications at a faster rate than any other firm engaged in developing drone technology, according to the report. As of August 2017, the company has been awarded 64 drone-related patents. Patent applications indicated the company is considering a giant flying warehouse with delivery by drones, among other ideas.
The Walmart patent application for smart shopping carts could be a move in the direction of cashier-less shopping, as in the Amazon Go locations, Gizmodo speculated. Autonomous tech for item identification and coordination of self-driving cars could be a step toward robotic picking, packing and delivery.
The six farming-related patent applications by Walmart follow a produce inspection technology the retailer developed. The applications propose the use of drones to identify pests attacking crops, monitor crop damage, spray pesticides and pollinate crops. While the patents are in intended to automate farming, provide more supply chain control and improve produce quality in-store, there was also speculation by CB Insights that this might lead to the giant retailer getting into the farming business in the same way Walmart and other food retailers have started dairy operations.
Discover Magazine noted that many patents never see fruition and it's common for companies to claim the rights for futuristic technologies, but these filings provide a glimpse into what the future of drones in retail might be.