Wal-Mart earned a U.S. patent this week for a system that would allow drones to operate inside of its stores, moving products between departments and arriving on dedicated landing pads to hand off items to employees or customers, Fortune reports.
Under the patented scheme, a Wal-Mart store would have an automated system that would operate the drones, dispatching them as necessary and controlling their flight paths, which primarily would be arranged over store shelves, according to the report.
Some dedicated landing zones would be within customer view, but it is not clear yet whether the drones would pick up items for delivery elsewhere in a store, or if they would be loaded by employees. Wal-Mart did not respond to Fortune's request for comment.
For some time, Amazon has been busy picking up patents related to different potential drone delivery concepts, but it's nice to see a major brick-and-mortar retailer get its hands on at least one patent in the space. This is an interesting one, too, because it doesn't focus on last-mile delivery, an area in which we have seen a lot of high-profile tests recently.
The concept of using drones inside of a retail space is not necessarily a new idea itself, and some market observers have suggested that rather than being used in a public air space in which logistical, air traffic and safety issues need to be sorted out, delivery drones actually could be used much sooner in fulfillment centers, massive warehouses and outdoors between supply chain structures located near one another.
Wal-Mart's patent appears to set a blueprint for how such drones might be used inside the store itself as part of everyday store operation and management. You can imagine a customer trying to find a particular item, asking a store associate about it and finding out it's not out on a shelf, but might be somewhere in the back. The associate could communicate with an employee in the back to have a drone send the item out to the nearest drone landing zone. At least, that's one way we envision this working. Wal-Mart doesn't seem to be saying much about this scheme right now, and the retailer may or may not have more specific applications already in mind.
The drone delivery market could also take a while to evolve. Even companies like UPS, Amazon and Flirtey (along with 7-Eleven) appear to have made progress figuring out how actual drone deliveries would work, many more things still need to be ironed out. It's little wonder that Gartner recently predicted that drone delivery will represent less than 1% of the drone market by 2020.
Among the to-do items, logistical questions remain around where delivery drones would land at a residence or business, who would launch them and how, what distances they would travel, and how they would recharge and refuel. Beyond all that, air traffic and public safety issues need to be worked out, and regulations need to be set — the latter being something that may not happen in the U.S. for at least a couple of years.
Running delivery drones inside a large enclosed space could be much easier to sort out, as federal airspace regulations wouldn't come into play, and other logistical and operational issues would be easier to control. Public safety of course would still be a major concern, although it sounds like Wal-Mart may already have that in mind with the likelihood in-store drones could be routed over store shelves.
It's not yet clear how serious Wal-Mart is about this particular concept. Like Amazon, it could be trying to lock in patents on inventions and architectures it thinks could occur to others in the space eventually. On the other hand, maybe we'll see this concept move toward a testing stage fairly quickly. If that's the case, other retailers, especially those operating out of big boxes, are likely to start developing their own variations on this idea. Stay tuned.