“There is a small chance companies [like Amazon and Walmart] will ultimately take over the market in a monopolistic way, but we believe the whole eCommerce market will have to adjust accordingly and join the drone delivery craze.” – Hadas Bandel, Flytrex
While online giant Amazon has been in the news recently for asking the Federal Aviation Administration to ease restrictions for its planned drone-based delivery services, a battle is raging behind the scenes for the future of unmanned delivery vehicles.
Walmart is combating the narrative of online retailers overtaking brick-and-mortar businesses by revamping its image and services. Besides using a hybrid of online shopping and manual pick-up at the store, the company is very interested in delivering its products to the customer directly—not only through traditional means, but with unmanned drone delivery couriers.
Walmart Joins the Race
From June 2018 to June 2019, Walmart filed for 97 new drone patents with the World Intellectual Property Organization (see sample U.S. patents below). This dwarfs Amazon’s WIPO filings for drone technology, which only amounted to 54 during the same time period, according to the Financial Times.
Of course, Chinese businesses far outpace the United States when it comes to drone patent filings, according to a report by BDO.
In 2016, Goldman Sachs research predicted that, by 2020, a $100 billion market opportunity will exist for drones, stemming from pressure of both the commercial and civil government sectors. $70 billion of drone spending will be reserved for defense, $17 billion belongs to the consumer drone market, but a solid $13 billion will be spent between 2016 and 2020 by businesses and governments for commercial use. Those figures were mirrored by Adroit Market Research in May when it said that the drone market will grow to hit $144.38 billion by 2025.
More Competition Means Quicker Regulation
Hadas Bandel of Flytrex, a drone delivery startup based out of Israel, said that, while regulatory and privacy issues are still being worked out, “drone delivery technology exists and is perfectly operational,” and that Flytrex welcomes the competition that Amazon and Walmart bring to the table.
“The more competition, the greater the chance of regulations in favor of commercial drone operations,” Bandel said. “Of course, there is a small chance that those companies will ultimately take over the market in a monopolistic way, but we believe the whole eCommerce market will have to adjust accordingly and join the drone delivery craze, once there will be one,” Bandel added.
Companies like Flytrex, Zipline, Flirtey and Matternet already operate in some areas, such as Iceland, where Flytrex makes food delivery runs for residents of the city of Reykjavik.
With Amazon and now Walmart increasingly vying for drone delivery technology, there is little doubt that such services will soon play a key role in all of our lives—probably much sooner than we expect. However, it remains anyone’s guess who will be ready to deliver the future to our doors first.
Below are some representative U.S. drone patents filed by Walmart:
U.S. Patent No. 10,301,021 titled Package Release System for Use in Delivery Packages, and Methods of Delivering Packages. It discloses a method in which a mechanical package release system comprised of a package release hanger configured to couple with and suspend from a drone (Unmanned Delivery Aircraft or UDA) then release the package once it has reached its destination. Stated to be an example of improved customer service, the method of delivery is described as being more convenient for the customer, as it will get the product to a delivery location without undesirable delays and added cost.
U.S. Patent No. 10,301,020, titled Systems and Methods of Delivering Products with Unmanned Delivery Aircrafts. It describes a method in which a delivery system made up of a crane motor can control the spooling and detracting of a cord suspended from the drone. The crane motor is configured to operate by a control circuit that stops and starts the motor. That same control circuit is configured to receive a release signal from the package-release hanger. The patent also discloses method in which a sonar height detection system provides height information corresponding to the height the UDA is from the delivery area. This information is delivered to the control circuit that controls the crane motor to lower the package.
Titled Apparatus and Method for Unmanned Flight, U.S. Patent No. 10,273,001 discloses a system in which an unmanned vehicle can exist. It includes a set of motors, wings, a sensor system and a control circuit. Accordingly, the control circuit would be programmed to perform a task assigned to the UDV, cause the motors to lift it, survey the environment condition through the sensor, and fly towards its goal.