Walmart continues to test drones for warehouse inventory control, delivery, other options

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,075 views 

Packages move through the Walmart distribution center in Bentonville.

Walmart continues to test drones to help improve efficiencies in its massive warehouse operations. Shekar Natarajan, vice president of last mile and emerging sciences, demonstrated the drone technology at the Walmart distribution center in Bentonville on Thursday (June 2) for the media attending the retailer’s annual shareholder week.

He said early tests of internal inventory management checks could be rolled out across the system within the next six to nine months, but said testing is still in its early phase and there is no large scale rollout plan in place at this time.

Talk Business & Politics reported in October that Walmart had asked the Federal Aviation Administration for an exemption that would allow it to test the use of drones in its supply chain. In that application Walmart asked the FAA for permission to test drones to safely deliver a package to a home and then return safely to a truck. The retailer also continues to look for ways to use drones within in its own supply chain.

Wal-Mart spokesman Ravi Jariwala said Thursday the retailer has conducted several outdoor tests with the drones since it received FAA clearance. He did not say when FAA clearance was received.

More than 2,100 exemptions allowing the commercial use of drone testing have been approved by the FAA. However, in August 2015 the federal agency raised concerns about drone usage. The FAA said it would levy stiff penalties and possible jail time to companies for unauthorized drone use, citing 650 reports of drone sightings by commercial pilots in 2015 compared to 238 in the prior year.

One of the Walmart tests underway for several months is using autonomous drones to conduct inventory quality checks that typically take two workers more than a month to complete. The drone hovers alongside the racks of merchandise and scans the products to ensure it is in the correct location within the massive warehouse. The scan technology aboard the drone was built inside Walmart and a central control center allows one worker to keep watch of scanned results in real time.

If the merchandise is in the right location, the drone records that as green, if the bin is empty the recording is blue and if the product is in the wrong place it gives off a red color. Natarajan said the control center can immediately see the problem and order a correction.

The warehouse is the size of 21 football fields and the inventory is stacked three stories high. He said for workers to complete this task they must be harnessed to the forklifts and move up and down and along side racks of inventory and they must manually scan the boxes inside the bins. It takes them about a month to complete the scans for the entire building, something the drone can do in 24 hours.

Jabo Floyd, manager of the Bentonville distribution center, said this is an ongoing task at the distribution center and the drone would be far more efficient because the problems can found early and solved in real time.

Natarajan said the inventory management checks are just one application of drone technology Walmart is interested in testing. He said monitoring fields where product is grown is another likely application, as well as scanning trucks in the yard  to track the contents inside the trucks that might be lined up outside waiting for a dock window to open. He said the final mile delivery option is also a desirable application at some point in the future.

The retailer said being able to more efficiently run operations so savings can be passed along to customers is the reason it’s pushing the envelope on integrating technology. Natarajan said his team continually looks at problem solving opportunities from the use of technology.

Other technology and sustainability updates made in the local warehouse in recent years include converting the fork lifts from battery energy to hydrogen fuel cells. The fork lifts can be refueled within three minutes. The old battery recharge took between eight to 12 minutes. Walmart said the sustainability of hydrogen cells and the fact that the machines runs at optimum capacity until the entire tank is empty is also saving time and money.

A new high efficiency label scanner is also being used at the distribution center. It can label and scan 700 units per hour, more than twice the 200 to 300 units a worker can scan in the same time. The old process required four steps, now the worker puts the item on the line and the machine does the rest.