It can be argued that, in some regards, Walmart and Amazon lead the way when it comes to testing applications for robots and drones.

 

Consider, for example, that every day, robots equipped with cameras move through some Walmart stores to scan aisles for out-of-stock items, products placed in the wrong shelf space, incorrect prices, and wrong or missing labels—and then alert human employees to the errors. Pilots worked out so well that Walmart has expanded its tests, and now uses the robots in 50 stores across four states, including Arkansas and California.

 

The robots, from fully autonomous robot manufacturer Bossa Nova Robotics, use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help identify stocking or pricing errors. They are capable of scanning dozens of aisles in under an hour, which enables employees to monitor inventory levels several times each day.

 

Critics of these robots, and other evolving technologies, fear they will eventually displace an inordinate number of human workers. Productivity, however, isn’t what Walmart has been focused on with the pilot program, according to the company’s vice president of innovation, John Crecelius. Use of the robots, which are often more efficient than employees performing similar tasks, is intended to free up workers’ time so they can use it to better help customers.

 

“This has largely been about how we improve our performance and improve our service to customers,” Crecelius told Business Insider.

 

One result is an improved ability to keep products in-stock by noticing more quickly when item inventory levels are running low. What’s more, during the initial testing phase, Walmart’s store employees found new uses for the robot that corporate hadn’t thought of, like using the information a robot compiles to realize certain items need to be immediately rushed from the delivery truck to store shelves, Crecelius says.

 

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Amazon.com has been granted a new patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a delivery drone which can respond to human gestures. The concept may help Amazon toward its goal to develop a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. The patent may help Amazon explore how flying robots might interact with human bystanders and customers waiting on their doorsteps.

 

According to the patent, the drone’s communication system would include an array of sensors, including a depth sensor and cameras, used to recognize human hand and body gestures, human voices and movement. Depending on a person’s gestures—a welcoming thumbs-up, shouting or frantic arm waving, for example—the drone can adjust its behavior, according to the patent. As described in the patent, the machine could release the heavily padded package it’s carrying, change its flight path to avoid crashing, ask humans a question or abort the delivery.

 

Among several illustrations in the design, a person is shown outside a home, flapping his arms in what Amazon describes as an “unwelcoming manner,” to showcase an example of someone driving away a drone flying overhead. A voice bubble comes out of the man’s mouth, depicting possible voice commands to the incoming machine.

 

“The human recipient and/or the other humans can communicate with the vehicle using human gestures to aid the vehicle along its path to the delivery location,” Amazon’s patent states.

 

Another diagram depicts the steps a drone would take when reading human body language as it delivers packages: “Receive human gesture”; “access gesture database”; “determine human gesture based on gesture database”; “proceed in accordance with determined human gesture and delivery instructions.”

 

What are your thoughts on increasing use of robots and drones? How do you see them being used in your supply chain, and how would they effect operations?