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Walmart Sees Potential Supply Chain Management Improvements through Drone Use

U.S. retailer Walmart has recently requested permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test drones for commercial purposes. The company, which serves 250 million customers each week in its 6,100+ retail locations throughout the world, has already been testing the unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs) indoors, but wants to begin outdoor trials. Commercial use of drones is currently prohibited, but the FAA will grant exemptions to applicants on a case-by-case basis.

According to Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, the FAA typically takes about 120 days to process this type of petition. If permission is granted, Walmart intends to experiment with the Phantom 3 and S900 drones from Chinese manufacturer SZ DJI Technology Co. Both drone models are currently used for professional aerial imaging or video purposes.

Walmart plans to test the drones for more efficient supply chain inventory management using electronic surveillance equipment and other devices. According to the FAA request, the company is also considering the use of drones for curbside pickup services and home delivery in small residential areas. “There is a Walmart within five miles of 70% of the U.S. population,” said a Walmart spokesperson to Reuters. “This creates some unique and interesting possibilities for serving customers with drones.”

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Other large companies in the retail industry, including Amazon and Chinese online retail behemoth Alibaba, are also toying with the idea of using drones for merchandise delivery and more streamlined supply chain management. In March of this year, Amazon received permission from the FAA to test drones outdoors, but with restrictions: they were required to keep the vehicles below a height of 400 ft, could not exceed 100 mph, and had to ensure all drones were operated by a human pilot.

A recent FAA press release announced the formation of a task force to develop recommendations for official drone registration processes and requirements by November 20.

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