ONCE IN A WHILE, even the most hardcore workahol- ics are given to ;ights of ancy. This seems to have reached a new level as global, regional and local retailers consider the use
of drones and robots.
I say “consider” since it is still pretty much
publicity-driven. You can blame Amazon’s
Je; Bezos for starting all this in the ;rst place.
We will probably see more drones stra;ng
living rooms across America on Christmas
morning than making deliveries. At the moment, it is more toy
than operational tool.
If you will excuse the
pun—pie in the sky.
But more than 50
years ago, Sam Walton
;ew his old Piper Tri-Pacer across Arkansas
looking for new store
sites. Maybe we are
just resurrecting an
old idea for a new
Drones have become so important that expositions in Europe and San Jose, Calif. have attracted a
wide range of industries and the ever-pres-ent venture capitalists. Most discussions
center on using them as delivery vehicles,
and there have been some interesting developments.
In response to Amazon, Walmart has re-
portedly been conducting indoor tests of
drones for several months and has asked per-
mission from regulators to test these buzzy
little whirlybirds for home delivery, curbside
pickup and to check warehouse inventories.
Next year, Blume, Germany’s largest ;ow-er delivery service, will take to the air for deliveries on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.
The guys who brought us Skype have
come up with a self-driving robot for delivering groceries. Yamaha has developed
a robot motorcyclist and the appropriately
named Starship Technologies has a land-based robot transporter that can carry 20
pounds or two bags of groceries. The developers believe they can deliver from a store
or DC within ;ve to 30 minutes at a cost that
is 10 to 15 times less than other delivery
A mobile app enables shoppers to track
the robot en route and, according to reports, only the app holder can unlock the
cargo. They use integrated navigation and
obstacle avoidance software and will even
call for help if someone tries to rob them.
You have got to admit it is intriguing.
But the problem is getting all the permissions needed from local transportation
authorities or the FAA and their European
counterparts. Sooner or later, the rules
governing commercial use of drones and
robots will be established. Meanwhile, it is
not something that will deter our intrepid
engineers from moving forward. Most auto
companies are busy developing driverless
cars even before there is viable software to
It is all very exciting and drones and robots make for good copy that piques consumer interest. Clearly, Sam Walton was
ahead of his time when it came to airborne
surveys. But the real value of this technology
has yet to be explored.
It has numerous applications in areas like
safety, security (an even bigger issue these
days), commercial video, construction and
even agriculture and conservation. They are
being used to catch poachers in Africa, track
populations in China, deliver emergency
;rst aid to disaster areas and analyze tra;c
patterns on roads and highways. Overall, we
are in the infancy of something that will en-
able us to capture more data.
I can even foresee the unions getting their
backs up about drones and robots taking
over their jobs. They might be right considering how automation has revolutionized
automobile manufacturing. If we can teach
them to drive from point A to point B, is it
not feasible for them to stock shelves, checkout customers and bag groceries?
This is not about a love a;air with a new
technology. It is about logistics and what
drones or robots could help us accomplish.
This is what Amazon’s Je; Bezos sees. In fact,
his and other online companies would not
even exist if it were not for advances in transport. As an article in Business Insider pointed
out, development of the railways gave rise
to catalog shopping and, in turn, the early
success of Sears Roebuck. And where would
suburban shopping centers be without the
nation’s car culture?
Drones and the next generation of UAVs
(unmanned aerial vehicles) are simply the
next logical phase in the development of
more e;cient ways to move merchandise
locally and maybe across the country and
around the world. The possibilities make for
Maybe the next generation entering the
food business will not be merchandisers,
marketers, accountants or buyers—but pilots, engineers and mechanics. S
DRONING ON AND ON
For the retail world, are drones the wave o; the future or simply ;ights of fancy?
By Len Lewis
Len Lewis is a regular Grocery
Headquarters columnist and
veteran industry journalist.