A Walmart drone airdrops a package in the company’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
When you’re the world’s largest retailer, customers expect a premium delivery experience — without paying a premium. But being the biggest seller on the planet also comes with a few perks.
Walmart (NYSE: WMT) has a war chest of institutional funding at its disposal, and its massive scale allows it to spend that money on any number of speculative ventures without undertaking potentially disastrous risk. Already, the company has experimented with solutions like drone delivery, food delivery robots and fully autonomous box trucks. A new patent, though, seeks to combine all three.
The patent, filed last week with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, describes a solution that combines driverless technology with delivery drones and robots. Under the proposal, Walmart would use automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that follow a predetermined route. But if they run into any obstacles, they would automatically release a drone to complete the delivery.
“We’re continuously exploring how emerging technologies may shape future shopping experiences and are testing new ideas all the time. Some ideas become products or services that make it to customers. And some we test, iterate and learn from,” Walmart said in an email statement to Modern Shipper.
The patent filing described drones as the “back-up mechanism” in cases in which deliveries using AGVs don’t go as planned.
“Recently, efforts have been made to deploy autonomous ground vehicles to complete deliveries to customers. The use of autonomous ground vehicles, however, presents its own challenges,” the patent reads. “More specifically, autonomous ground vehicles will often encounter obstacles that may prevent them from completing the delivery, such as, for example, motor vehicles, people, animals, road constructions, curbs and closed gates.”
The robots would be equipped with one or more sensors — the patent mentions laser, ultrasound, optical and infrared sensors as potential options. When those sensors determine that the AGV has been stopped by an obstacle, in certain cases, a drone mounted on top of the robot will fly the rest of the route.
Those include situations in which the AGV is stopped and does not have enough battery power, the obstacle does not move within a given amount of time, the system cannot find an alternative ground-based route, or the AGV will not arrive by the scheduled delivery time.