In October 2015, Wal-Mart applied to U.S. regulators for permission to test drones for home delivery, curbside pickup and checking warehouse inventories as it planned to use drones to fill and deliver online orders, reported Reuters. Federal regulators are still considering rules for commercial operation of drones that would be involved in package delivery—viewed as the next frontier for big retailers such as Walmart and Amazon Inc., Reuters said.
Walmart's Vice President of Last Mile and Emerging Sciences Shekar Natarajan demonstrated the use of drones to reporters in one of the company's regional distribution centers, reported the New York Times. "We are still in early phases of testing and understanding how drones can be better used in different types of business functions," he said.
The remotely controlled drone captured 30 frames per second of products on aisles and alerted the user when product ran out or was incorrectly stocked. Natarajan said drones can reduce the labor intensive process of checking stocks around the warehouse to one day. It currently takes a month to finish manually.
Finding ways to more efficiently warehouse, transport and deliver goods to customers has taken on new importance for Wal-Mart as it deals with wages costs while seeking to beat back price competition and boost online sales, noted the New York Times.
Wal-Mart said the camera and technology on top of the drones have been custom-built for the retailer. While a Walmart employee may handle the drone, the technology could “potentially” mean fewer workers would be needed to take stock or replace missing items, Lorenzo Lopez, a spokesman, Lorenzo Lopez, a Walmart spokesman, said to the New York Times. He noted that those workers would be employed in other parts of the warehouse. “It’s really the technology that mounts on the drones that makes it very important,” Natarajan said.
The retailer is using 80 supercenters, in addition to its distribution centers, to help fulfill online orders. By speeding up warehouse operations, drones could help address the logistical challenges of managing inventory in so many places.
Walmart operates 190 distribution centers in the United States, and each one services 100-150 stores. Millions of items can move through the centers each week and onto a fleet that includes 6,500 trucks and 8,000 drivers to move merchandise throughout the United States.