News Feature | June 15, 2016

Walmart Plans To Employ Drones To Challenge Amazon

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Walmart Inventory Drones

Drones will be used to slash time for inventory checks at distributions centers.

Walmart is going to the drones. The company’s Vice President of Last Mile and Emerging Sciences Shekar Natarajan, made the announcement just before its annual shareholders meeting, when he stated that drones will be employed to reduce the time it takes to complete inventory checks at Walmart’s massive distribution centers. He explained that the machines could help catalog in as little as a day what now takes employees about a month. According to Fortune, the retailer is six to nine months away from employing drones to track inventory and improve its fulfillment statistics. The pressure is on to speed delivery and better compete with rival Amazon.

As part of its new initiatives, Walmart has committed to spending $2.7 billion on labor, technology and other investments, including improving its website and e-commerce business, to better compete with its rivals and improve its overall profit margin. The drone technology will be tested for six to nine months to see how it can help improve the supply chain, but the company also believes that drones may have other future applications, even in-store.

And Natarajan told reporters that the value is not so much in the drones themselves, but in the data they help collect that can provide valuable insights to the retailer. "We are still in early phases of testing and understanding how drones can be better used in different types of business functions," he said, according to Reuters, but “It’s really the technology that mounts on the drones that makes it very important,” he explained.

The retail giant is also collaborating with the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA to develop drone technology, and hopes to utilize the technology for delivery at some point in the future as well. Last year, Walmart applied to the FAA for an exemption to current regulations in order to perform outdoor tests so that it could move towards using drones for deliveries to parking lots and customer homes, USA Today reported.

While the implementation of drones in the fulfillment centers will potentially displace current employees, Lorenzo Lopez, a Walmart spokesman told the New York Times that any displaced workers will be reassigned to other areas of the warehouse.