In the race to offer customers the fastest delivery of online orders, many retailers are exploring the use of drones to deliver merchandise. One of the challenges they face is finding a safe and simple way to drop off the packages at their destination, especially in crowded urban areas.
Walmart Inc. has filed two patent applications for delivery systems that aim to solve this problem. Both are designs for a drone system to make deliveries to high-rise and medium-rise apartment buildings or offices.
Perhaps the simpler of the two is a window unit for receiving packages from an “unmanned aerial vehicle,” as drones are called in the sphere of autonomous delivery. According to the patent application, it consists of a frame attached to a building wall and window ledge, with a net inside the frame. The net receives the package, and the customer opens the window to retrieve it.
The other delivery device is more complex, involving both a shelf with a trap door mounted to an outside wall to receive the package and a transport system to move the delivered item indoors. The transport system could be a slide, chute, conveyor belt or elevator, the document states.
The Bentonville retailer has filed hundreds, if not thousands, of patents related to drones and other autonomous delivery systems. There’s no guarantee any of them will ever be implemented.
A Walmart spokesman said Wednesday that the company has no plans for either of the drone delivery systems at this time. The spokesman didn’t say whether Walmart has a timeline to begin testing deliveries by drone.
Both applications were filed in late March and published Oct. 3. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, patent applications are typically published 18 months after the filing date. There are exceptions, though, and filers can ask that applications be published sooner.
Most major retailers are exploring the use of autonomous delivery systems, including drones. Drugstore chain Walgreen Co. said last month that it will be the first in the U.S. to test on-demand drone delivery of select items. Deliveries to customers in Christiansburg, Va., are to start this month, Walgreen said.
To carry out the pilot project, Walgreen partnered with Wing Aviation LLC, a subsidiary of Google owner Alphabet. Wing is the first drone operator certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as an air carrier. Customers will place orders for medications, food and other wellness and convenience products using the Wing mobile app.
The test is being conducted through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, created in 2017 to determine aviation regulations and safety protocols for the devices. Parcel carrier UPS Inc. also takes part in the program, and has said it will start a delivery subsidiary called Flight Forward Inc. once it obtains FAA certification.
And Walmart’s e-commerce rival, Amazon.com, said in June that it will start testing drone delivery by the end of the year. Amazon claims its Amazon Prime Air delivery service will be able to fly packages weighing up to 5 pounds to customers within 30 minutes of ordering.
Fleets of delivery drones won’t be filling the skies any time soon, though. Jon Walker, who writes about emerging technologies for consulting firm Emerj Artificial Intelligence Research, said in a May article that there’s a big difference between a few carefully watched drones flying in a limited area and “potentially hundreds” flying in the same general area.
“Regular adoption of drone delivery will involve solving significant technical and legal challenges,” Walker said. “The biggest technical challenge is safety, and getting all the drones working in unison. Any drone flying over a highly populated area needs to be able to handle everything from trees to kites to freak events like an eagle dropping a fish it just caught.”
Walker said the FAA, NASA and various industry partners are working on a drone air traffic control system to keep all these aircraft flying safely in tandem. NASA wants to finish researching such a system by year’s end, he said, so the FAA can begin implementing it.
If the testing goes well, Walker said, “2020 is the earliest one could reasonably expect significant deployment in the United States. It might be more realistic to look around 2023 for regular drone deliveries to homes.”
Walker added, though, that if drone delivery is safely adopted at scale in other countries, “we can expect regulatory processes to speed up in the USA.”