Walmart Testing Drones for DC Inventory Management

Walmart has begun testing the use of drones in a distribution center for conducting inventory, completing in an hour what it would take two associates a month to do, according to various published reports.

While Walmart, like Amazon and Google, has applied to the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct outdoor aerial tests of drones for package delivery, drone-based DC inventory scanning seems a much easier approval hurdle to clear, a more practical use and a quicker return on the investment. Walmart’s FAA application also mentioned possible use of drones for tracking merchandise, including taking inventory of trailers outside its distribution centers.

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Walmart’s testing is being conducted inside a 1.2 million-square-foot DC near its Bentonville, AR headquarters. The drone scans shelves, taking 30 pictures a second. When an item is in the wrong place, an “air traffic controller” sees it on a map of the facility on his screen, and associates are dispatched to move it.

The company said the drone testing process should take another six to nine months to complete. Along with building out its ecommerce infrastructure and technology investments, this is another way the world’s largest retailer is looking to gain ground in its never-ending battle with Amazon.

Will drone technology in the DC prove to be an augmentation of associate tasks, or will it be an efficiency tool that leads to downsizing of staff? Most likely the latter, but time will tell. And compared to other types of DC automation technology, drones should prove relatively inexpensive to purchase and operate.