Coddington, Hicks & Danforth

Businesses could start using drones for more than deliveries

Drones have frequently been in the news for their potential as a delivery mechanism. With major e-commerce companies exploring their viability as a shipping solution, "delivery drones" could be everywhere sooner than later. Their utility makes sense for online retailers like Amazon--a company that ships countless small packages every day--but one big-box chain is looking to bring drones indoors.

Walmart recently submitted a patent application for what it calls a "providing drone assistance" system. At a fundamental level, this would allow shoppers to call on in-store drones when they have questions. It's an innovation that could potentially revolutionize the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, as well as how drones function as a tool of business.

Drone assistance in the shopping aisle

Walmart's application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office offers a slight glimpse into how this technology would work. When a shopper is curious about the location or price of an item, they would simply take out their phone and summon a drone. The drone would then be able to scan barcodes and answer questions via a display or machine-spoken answer.

This service drone would also be able to provide directions to where the item is located in the store. Walmart's application suggests this would be done by either a visual projection or an audio cue that the customer could follow.

How far off is this technology?

It's unclear whether or not Walmart will act on this patent in the immediate future. It's worth noting, however, that the company recently tested inventory assessment robots at some Bay Area locations. While those trials were not of drone technology, they do signal that Walmart is taking a high-tech approach to their retail future in order to stay competitive.

How companies like Walmart and Amazon will use drones going forward is very much in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration. As the FAA's regulations currently stand, they are not applicable to indoor drone use. This could be good news for the implementation of in-store service drones, whereas some laws--namely that a drone must remain in the sights of its operator--have been a hindrance in the launch of drone delivery systems.

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