The battle between brick and mortar giant Wal-Mart and online colossus Amazon is heating up, as Wal-Mart looks to patent its concept for a store of the future. Bringing the goods to the customer with mothership style warehouse blimps is something both retailers have envisioned. Amazon was first to apply but experts say Wal-Mart has the edge by providing more detail with their proposed system.
Amazon and Wal-Mart pay very close attention to what each other are doing as they go toe to toe in competition for retail market share. Amazon is establishing a physical presence by picking up the Whole Foods Market chain while Wal-Mart is stepping up efforts to boost e-commerce. Fierce competition means anything one of them tries to do, the other must try to do better. In April of 2016, Amazon announced a scheme for aerial delivery blimps and filed a patent. Not to be outdone, Wal-Mart got their engineers busy and came up with a plan of their own.
Different enough from the Amazon design, the application was accepted. Khaled Fekih-Romdhane, who is a patent licensing consultant, predicts, “Wal-Mart’s application stands a good chance of getting approved as it goes into more detail about the implementation of a gas-filled aircraft than Amazon’s patent, which is a more general description of the concept of airborne-delivery systems.” Floating between 500 and 1,000 feet above the trees, Wal-Mart’s remote or robot controlled “gas-filled aerial transport and launch system” would house a swarm of drones ready to drop from the sky laden with parcels and packages.
Not only would flying robot warehouses lower operating costs, it eliminates the need for third-party delivery companies. Carriers like UPS and Fed-X usually take the goods on the final leg of the journey to your doorstep, what is known in the industry as the “last mile.” Physical retailers like Wal-Mart are currently suggesting customers come into the store to pick up their online orders which not only saves the delivery cost, it gives the shopper a chance to add more to the cart while they are there.
Helping customers avoid the hassle of driving to the store can be a huge benefit. Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Brandon Fletcher pointed out, “The core challenge of traffic and driving distance in any major city or in a very rural location can be helped by a floating warehouse. Movable warehouses are a really nice idea because any flexible part of a logistics system allows it to be more efficient when demand varies wildly. The e-commerce world suffers from highly variable demand and more creative solutions are needed.”
Traditional warehouse buildings are limited by the fact they can only supply orders within a limited range of driving distance. By moving the warehouse, a much larger area can be served by one facility. “The airship could fly to one town and release a flock of drones to deliver packages, after which the drones would return to the vessel and restock while it flew to the next town.”
Fletcher relates. This kind of system also has obvious advantages over the option of using drones from a central fixed hub on the ground. As stated in Wal-Mart’s application for the patent, “There are numerous ways to distribute and deliver products. Getting the product to a delivery location, however, can cause undesirable delays, can add cost and reduce revenue.”
Amazon’s version of the scheme has the blimps flying much higher, at around 45,000 feet. Their system suggests using gravity as an assist by making all the drones fly a simple downward path, reducing power requirements to only as much needed to glide and steer. After completing the delivery, the drone would fly off to a nearby rendezvous target where it would be picked up by the blimp on its return for re-supply. Other features call for mid-air refueling and resupply of the warehouse blimps.
According to Amazon, one good way to use the set-up is at football games. Instead of the traditional Goodyear blimp just sitting up there and filming the game, a warehouse blimp could deploy a swarm of drones dropping food, drinks, merchandise and more right to your seat. “The airship could also be used as a giant advertising board, allowing customers to order the items on display. All of these can be ordered within minutes.”
With all of those aerial drones flying around, Walmart should also be able to pick up some valuable images as an extra added bonus. Drones often capture the best footage because they look straight down onto popular areas. Mark Girardeau was capturing footage of a popular beach in California with his drone and saw something totally amazing that nobody on the beach had any idea was even there. A giant gray whale swimming underneath the beachgoers.