Commentary

That Drone You Hear May Be Walmart Delivering

A drone won’t be dropping a “Chosen by Kids” Fisher-Price Bright Beats Dance & Move Beatbo down your chimney with a ho-ho-ho this holiday season but Wal-Mart is preparing flight plans for the use of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the future.

The retailer has asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to test the use of UAVs for deliveries from truck bays to doorsteps in residential neighborhoods, as well as to perform more mundane tasks such as taking stock of what’s inside of trailers lined up in the yards of its distribution centers.

“Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Toporek said the company would move quickly to deploy drones depending on its tests and regulations,” Reuters’ Nathan Layne and David Morgan reported in breaking the story yesterday. 

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“Drones have a lot of potential to further connect our vast network of stores, distribution centers, fulfillment centers and transportation fleet,” Toporek said. “There is a Walmart within five miles of 70% of the U.S. population, which creates some unique and interesting possibilities for serving customers with drones.”

SZ DJI Technology Co., a nine-year-old Chinese company that makes the devices Wal-Mart is testing, “has dominated the nascent consumer UAV industry but is little-known outside drone circles,” writes Ryan Mac for Forbes. “DJI controls more than 70% of the consumer drone market based on some analysts’ estimates by selling devices like its popular Phantom 3, a camera-bearing quadcopter that costs less than $1,000.”

Wal-Mart “has tested drones inside its facilities but now wants to do outdoor tests,” report Hadley Malcolm and Elizabeth Weise for USA Today. It’s ready to start as soon as it gets FAA approval, which takes 120 days according to Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition

Amazon and Google parent Alphabet are among the companies already testing drones. 

Amazon “led the push to relax FAA drone rules earlier this year by pressuring the government and threatening to take its operations overseas. Amazon finally received permission to test delivery drones outdoors in March, but still claims the government isn't moving fast enough,” reports T.C. Sottek for The Verge.

But the FAA “has issued more than 2,000 approvals in the past year to use drones commercially and the agency has recently accelerated such approvals,” report Sarah Nassauer and Jack Nicas for the Wall Street Journal. “That bodes well for Wal-Mart’s application because the agency has also approved hundreds of companies to use the Chinese-made drones that Wal-Mart is seeking to test.” 

The industry does have some convincing to do on Main St.

“Polls show that the majority of Americans don't like the idea of drones making deliveries,” reports NPR’s Laura Sydell. “The FAA will review Walmart's application and decide if it should be fast-tracked or if the company qualifies for an exemption from the rules, which would involve seeking public comment.”

Its plans include having “drones take off from delivery trucks, bring goods to a home and then return to the truck,” writes Matt McFarland for the Washington Post, for which it would first obtain permission from any property owners in the flight path.  

But that’s not all.

“You can envision a scenario where a drone is at one of our million-square-foot distribution centers, and it can fly through the center and do inventory work. And we’re thinking, can we fly something from one distribution center to a fulfillment center, or to a store?” spokesman Toporek tells the New York Times’ Hiroko Tabuchi.

“Then there’s the idea of curbside pickup. Could you bring goods out to somebody at the corner of the parking lot, for example, using a drone?” he said.

It also intends to gather photos, video or data from infra-red and chemical sensors that “could be useful for business analytics,” the Washington Post’sMcFarland reports, and “wants to conduct some tests over large tracts of rural land that it owns.”

ABC News reported earlier this month that about 700,000 drones will be sold this year — a 63% jump over 2014 — which is worrisome to both pilots and government officials. 

“The [FAA] plans to meet with Walmart, which has 19 different kinds of drones for sale on its website, to teach salespeople about what it should tell its customers about safe drone operation,” David Kerley wrote at the time. The Consumer Electronics Association “predicts there will be more than 1 million drone flights every day by 2025,” we are told. 

That seems mighty conservative, once the likes of Amazon, Walmart and every local pizza parlor in the neighborhood are cleared for takeoff, no?

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