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Walmart’s Last-Mile Patent Filing Has Self-Driving Bots Tag Teaming With Drones

Walmart is looking at ways to shore up on-time, last-mile deliveries by having autonomous vehicles and drones tag team in the event of roadblocks.

A filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the retailer Thursday, which was first reported by Insider, indicates the retailer is looking to further build on a previously issued patent as it relates to delivery.

“In the retail setting, one important challenge is the delivery of merchandise to customers,” Walmart said in its filing.

The retailer detailed in its application how a sensor would flag a vehicle that’s no longer moving and determine if it can travel along an alternate delivery route that still gets a package to the customer on time. If it’s determined that a drone could better handle the on-time delivery and its battery range is sufficient, the drone would instead do the final drop off to the end consumer.

The drone would either already be mounted and traveling with the autonomous vehicle in such cases, or it would fly in from a control center, according to patent documents.

The filing went on to say how third-party delivery and in-house delivery teams are options used by retailers, along with higher-tech channels such as autonomous vehicles.

“The use of autonomous ground vehicles, however, presents its own challenges,” the filing said. “More specifically, autonomous ground vehicles will often encounter obstacles that may prevent them from completing the delivery, such as, for example, motor vehicles, people, animals, road construction, curbs and closed gates. If the autonomous ground vehicle is unable to complete a delivery due to an obstacle, it is desirable to have a back-up mechanism available to complete the delivery.”

A spokesperson for Walmart told Sourcing Journal Friday there aren’t currently plans for the patent when asked if the technologies were currently being tested or if the retailer has a rollout timetable.

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“We’re continuously exploring how emerging technologies may shape future shopping experiences and are testing new ideas all the time,” the spokesperson said. “Some ideas become products or services that make it to customers. And some we test, iterate and learn from.”

Walmart’s been working with a number of companies on the autonomous vehicles side, including Ford Motor Company and Argo AI in markets such as Austin, Texas as well as Miami. The company in late 2020 began piloting an autonomous route with Gatik in its hometown of  Bentonville, Ark., where an autonomous vehicle moved product from a Walmart store serving as a fulfillment center and one of the company’s Neighborhood Market locations.

In the realm of drones, Walmart said in May it’s expanding its DroneUp delivery hub network, growing the count to 34 by year end. The retailer said at the time that drones are a delivery channel it has been working on over the past year.

The expansion would give Walmart access to as many as 4 million households in six states.

The DroneUp service charges customers a $3.99 delivery fee on orders of as much as 10 pounds and touts delivery as fast as 30 minutes.

Drone delivery has become a viable option for a number of companies looking to up their last-mile delivery games, although the technology’s use at retail is still in its nascent stage.

Amazon said last month it would begin using drones to deliver products via what it calls Prime Air. The launch will happen this year for customers in Lockeford, Calif., an unincorporated part of San Joaquin County about 100 miles northwest of San Francisco.

Other retailers to use drones include Walgreens and its partnership with Alphabet’s Wing service and CVS via a program with UPS.