Walmart is seeking permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to test fly package delivery drones outdoors in hopes that it can put together a method to zoom packages to consumers in the future.
The company has applied to the FAA for approval of proposals to provide package home delivery, curbside pickup and warehouse inventory checking as it looks to find new ways of shipping purchases to consumers, according to an Oct. 27 story by Reuters.
Walmart has apparently been testing drones, which are officially referred to by the FAA as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), indoors for several months and is ready to move its tests outside to see how they will perform, the story reported. The company plans to use drones manufactured by China's SZ DJI Technology, according to Reuters.
Such a move would echo similar tests that have been underway at Amazon.com, which has for the past several years been planning delivery services using drones that could take packages to online shoppers more quickly than conventional delivery methods such as UPS, the U.S. Postal Service and FedEx.
Walmart is asking the FAA for permission to test its drones in "deliveries to customers at Walmart facilities, as well as to consumer homes," the story said.
The FAA will now review the company's application.
A wide range of businesses, from e-retailer Amazon to agricultural businesses, photographers, energy production companies, news operations and others, have been clamoring for the ability to use drones for several years, but have been prevented from doing so until the FAA implements regulations to ensure their safe operation, according to earlier eWEEK stories. The companies have been arguing that delays in implementing drone rules in the United States have kept businesses from benefiting from cost savings and new revenue from their use.
The FAA has been working since 2012 to develop rules and procedures for the commercial use of drones in the United States. In June, an FAA spokesman said the agency is working to have drone regulations in place by mid-2016. Now the agency has shortened that timeline, saying it will be next April or so. The regulations will govern drone flights and keep them safely away from commercial and private aircraft traffic as well as pedestrians and other hazards on the ground.
Walmart spokesman Dan Toporek told Reuters that his company wants to move forward quickly with its plans once its testing is completed and the FAA rules go into effect. "Drones have a lot of potential to further connect our vast network of stores, distribution centers, fulfillment centers and transportation fleet," he told Reuters. "There is a Walmart within five miles of 70 percent of the U.S. population, which creates some unique and interesting possibilities for serving customers with drones."
By using drones, Walmart could add another cost-cutting tool to its retail arsenal, while also improving its warehousing methods, the story reported. "In the FAA application, Walmart said it wanted to test drones for taking stock of trailers and other items in the parking lot of a warehouse using electronic tagging and other methods. A Walmart distribution center could have hundreds of trailers waiting in its yard, and a drone could potentially be used to quickly account for what each one is holding."
The company also plans to review how it could use drones to deliver groceries efficiently and accurately, the story reported. In addition, the company wants to see if it could launch drones from delivery trucks in small residential neighborhoods so that the devices can make deliveries and then return to the trucks.
Earlier in October, a coalition of 29 aviation groups harshly criticized the FAA's slowness in approving drone rules, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The groups argued in a joint letter that the agency is to blame for failing to meet a Sept. 30 congressional deadline to get rules in place for commercial drone use in the United States. In 2012, Congress told the FAA to create and integrate commercial drone rules with FAA rules for private and commercial airspace so that they could operate safely in the skies together.
In July, Amazon proposed the use of specific sections of U.S. airspace for drone flights so that it could push forward with its plans to provide package delivery flights across the United States, eWEEK reported at the time. Amazon's idea is to designate airspace below 200 feet for drones that do surveying or inspections or take videos, while reserving airspace between 200 to 400 feet for delivery drones that are making their way over communities. Such a system would then connect drones as they are operating to an online network that would manage their flights in real time to keep them from harm's way. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would allow drones to be flown autonomously, while being equipped with sophisticated sense-and-avoid technologies.
Amazon has been looking at drone deliveries as a way of offering faster service to customers while also saving money, compared with the more costly human-based delivery systems.