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The Future of Fulfillment, According to Walmart Patent Filing? Drones, Blockchain and Robots

Two years after Amazon conceived of the conceptual Prime Air service that envisions a fleet of drones handling package deliveries, Walmart has applied for a patent for a delivery system that’s also centered around unmanned aerial vehicles—but brings blockchain and robots into the mix, too.

Blockchain is a distributed ledger, or database, comprised of nodes (or blocks) that are secured by cryptography. Because it’s distributed and decentralized, blockchains lives on multiple computers, meaning any attempts to alter a node must be approved by a minimum 51 percent consensus of stakeholder—a near-impossible task. That’s why blockchain is described “immutable” or unchangeable. The technology is seen as a way to increase transparency and trust between stakeholders.

Walmart’s primary concern with the delivery system is ensuring that each device involved is, in fact, wirelessly communicating only with other verified devices. After all, black-hat hackers have already demonstrated a willingness to hijack basic household devices like baby monitors; a drone or robot ferrying merchandise would be a naturally attractive target for bad actors. Additional security measures are needed to keep the supply chain secure when the number of devices, vehicles or bots that touches each order suddenly proliferates.

Here’s one basic scenario: an autonomous bot roving around a fulfillment warehouse picks the products that correspond to a customer order, and need to hand off the packaged items to a drone that will fly the box to its end destination. But how will the bot confirm that the drone is, in fact, the one that is supposed to receive the goods? Using blockchain to authenticate the signals transmitted from, say, a drone to a robot would circumvent these potential security issues.

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And that’s exactly what Walmart has in mind.

The patent filing, entitled “Systems, Devices, and Methods for In-Field Authenticating of Autonomous Robots,” describes how one “mobile autonomous electronic device” (e.g., a robot) would transmit an “authentication signal” to a second device (e.g., a drone). Once the second device verifies the initial signal and fires off an authentication signal of its own to the first device, the first device has the go-ahead to turn over the item it’s carrying.

The authentication signals would contain blockchain keys, according to the patent document, that could be “configured to facilitate confirming the identity” of each electronic device. What’s more, the first device would be able to “access delivery information from a distributed blockchain database” as a part of confirming the identity of the second device.

Walmart’s patent application highlights the real-world potential for blockchain. Though the distributed ledger technology could someday supplant some of the systems we take for granted, for now point solutions seem to be where it can be the most impactful.