- Walmart has filed a patent for a floating warehouse that would release drones to deliver orders to customers, according to Bloomberg. The company notes the ship would fly between 500 and 1,000 feet above the ground, contain multiple launching bays and possibly be controlled remotely.
- Amazon filed a patent for a similar airship last April, though it did not go into as much detail as Walmart did in its filing, Bloomberg notes. Industry observers see the move as a rejoinder to Amazon and its efforts to innovate last-mile delivery.
- The move would likely save Walmart time and money on delivery, according to Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Brandon Fletcher. “Any flexible part of a logistics system allows it to be more efficient when demand varies wildly,” he told Bloomberg. “The e-commerce world suffers from highly variable demand and more creative solutions are needed.”
Amazon has long been known as a company willing to experiment — and to fail. But with the stakes increasing in online retailing and grocery fulfillment, Walmart, a company typically known for squeezing every last penny out of its operations, is willing to gamble, too.
Walmart’s floating warehouse would deploy small drones in a scenario commonly imagined in sci-fi novels and movies. However, instead of wreaking planetary havoc, the drones would deliver groceries, packages and other goods to the customer's doorsteps. The move could save time by avoiding typical obstacles such as rush-hour traffic. It also could save money on labor costs, fuel and by meeting variable demand, as Brandon Fletcher from Sanford C. Bernstein notes.
Amazon’s floating warehouse, in contrast, would fly at 45,000 feet and could be recharged in mid-air. The online retailer noted its drones would conserve energy by floating down to their destinations rather than having to lift off, land, then lift off again. The idea is one of a multitude of ideas Amazon has cooked up to quickly deliver goods — all in the name of cracking the last-mile code.
Drone delivery, which once seemed incredibly farfetched, has become increasingly viable as technology and usage has evolved. But the concept remains a flight of fancy for now. The Federal Aviation Administration has said it won’t issue standards until at least 2020. Even then, companies will still have plenty of technical and logistical issues to sort out, according to research firm Gartner.
It’s unclear how or if the FAA guidelines would accommodate a drone-spitting airship like the ones Walmart and Amazon have imagined. It’s also not clear if the deliveries would be able to accommodate groceries. Can a jug of milk survive a 45,000-foot descent? What’s the risk of fresh produce or boxes of cereal raining down from the sky?
And yet, just because it’s hard to imagine now doesn’t mean drone delivery won’t become a widespread platform in the future. The concept, if it ever truly takes off, is many years away, but Walmart, Amazon and other companies are more than willing to wait to gain any advantage they can.