Wal-Mart has applied for a U.S. patent for a system that would leverage blockchain technology to help the retailer track packages to be delivered by drones, coindesk first reported.
The system would comprise “a blockchain processing device that tracks, registers and authenticates items of the payload moving through a supply chain,” according to an application document published May 25 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The application further stated, in part, “Package tracking by blockchain may include elements including but not limited to location, supply chain transition, authentication of the courier and customer, ambient temperature of the container, temperature of the product if available, acceptable thresholds for ambient temperature of the product, package contents placed in the container system (products & goods), or a combination thereof."
This is the second time in the last several months we have heard about Wal-Mart working with blockchain technology. Last December, the retailer started working with IBM and China's Tsinghua University on a project to use blockhain to track its pork and produce transactions in China. Come to think of it, we should expect to hear something about that test soon, since its was supposed to start early in the year and last for four months.
In any case, applying the highly secure digital ledger technology to track elements of the drone delivery process would be a natural move for Wal-Mart, given its existing interest in using blockchain in its supply chain, as drones are intended to become just another last-mile delivery vehicle hooking into the retail supply chain.
Wal-Mart and others still need to be cautious about how they choose to use blockchain technology and how much they expect of it. As Forbes just reported, there is as much skepticism about the technology as there is excitement, and in a sense, blockchain is "a solution looking for a problem" to solve. Still, the refinement of the package delivery process, if not a problem, is at least a challenge worth solving for the sake of improving efficiency and lowering costs, so blockchain could very well prove to be a good fit.
We'll see where Wal-Mart goes with the concept it is seeking to patent. The idea itself seems to have been extensively thought out, and it doesn't hurt to start patenting elements of the drone delivery system and process, even if the entire system isn't quite ready yet — especially if it wants to keep up with Amazon. The e-commerce giant has been busy pursuing and winning drone-related patents for projects, such as an "airborne fulfillment center" and for drones with built-in parachutes.
Wal-Mart already has a patent covering in-store drone deliveries. Now, they just need the drone delivery market to cooperate. Drone delivery remains a work in progress for most retailers that will not be widely used for another few years. Whatever Wal-Mart is planning, it has a bit of time to figure it all out.