Attention, warehouse workers: flying robots are coming for your jobs.
Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, employs 2.3 million people globally—1.5 million in the U.S. alone—but some of those positions could be eliminated thanks to a more automated alternative.
Walmart’s vice president of last mile and emerging sciences, Shekar Natarajan, revealed Thursday that the retailer had begun testing the use of flying drones in its distribution centers to help deliver real-time data to associates and move goods around the warehouses.
The goal: to get inventory to its thousands of stores and customers in the quickest way possible. According to the New York Times, Natarajan said that drones could help catalog in as little as a day what now takes employees about a month.
While the machines will supplant some warehouse workers, a company spokesman insisted those people would be relocated to other areas of the facility.
Walmart applied to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the go-ahead to test drones last October, explaining that it wanted to try using them to take stock of inventory, using electronic tagging as a more efficient way to count items in its 190 distribution centers around the U.S.
The retailer said testing will continue for the next six to nine months, before potentially being rolled out to its extensive network of warehouses.
“Doing inventory stock situational analysis via a drone is a smart way to leverage the drones—especially across a huge warehouse,” said Tom Reed, global vice president of strategic communications for SAP’s global retail business unit, commenting Friday in an online discussion among RetailWire’s BrainTrust panel of industry experts.
Mohamed Amer, global head of strategic communications and consumer industries at SAP, agreed. “Another data point showing that Walmart has not lost its R&D edge,” he said. “Walmart’s reported intention to pilot drones in their DCs emphasizes the core strength of the company: their supply chain and logistics. Pending results, this move can reduce DC labor cost, make for better use of efficient forklift assets, improve service levels to stores and keep shelves better stocked in stores.”
“Profitability in the 21st century is all about speed and automation (fewer humans in the process). Drones help compress time and process. This is the competitive advantage of logistics today,” Liz Crawford, senior vice president of strategy and insights at Match Marketing Group, said. “As Walmart succeeds and realizes savings, others will follow.”