Walmart is currently on track to file more drone-related patents than Amazon for the second year in a row.
An image from a Walmart drone patent
According to research conducted by The Financial Times, since June of 2018 Walmart has filed 97 new drone patents with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), while Amazon has filed only 54.
The number of drone patents filed with the WIPO globally rose by 34% between July of 2017 and June of 2018, with a good portion of that growth taking place in the U.S.—Walmart filed 57 drone patents in 2018 alone, more than all the drone patents filed in the U.K. during the same year.
But China leads the pack when it comes to drone patents. They have over 6,000 of them filed with the WIPO, with the U.S. trailing behind at about a third that number (2,045, to be exact).
As you might guess, DJI has filed a huge number of its own drone patents—more than Walmart and Amazon combined.
Why Is Walmart Interested in Drones?
Walmart and Amazon’s interest in drones is part of an ongoing delivery war. Earlier this year, when Amazon Prime cut its default shipping time to just one day, Walmart fired back by offering free next day shipping on orders over $35.
Just like Amazon, Walmart is looking toward the future of shipping—and both companies are betting that the future lies in drone delivery.
Because Walmarts are so pervasive in the U.S., they are well positioned to leverage drone deliveries for shipping, which will most likely only be possible for short distances (15 miles or so).
Given that about 90% of Americans live about 15 minutes from a Walmart, they already have the infrastructure needed for a successful nationwide drone delivery program.
But Walmart doesn’t just want to use drones for deliveries.
Some of the patents that the retail giant has filed show they’re also interested in using drones for customer service within their Supercenters. A drone could be called by a customer’s mobile device while the customer is in the store, providing services such as price verification or navigation to products.
If, for example, the user has requested navigation assistance to an item selected from a virtual shopping list on the mobile electronic device, the computing device can control the aerial drone to provide navigation assistance to guide the user to the location of the selected item.
– Quote from a Walmart Drone Patent Application
Walmart has also applied for patents that would support the use of drone technology for agricultural applications. Some of these patents include plans for drones that would identify pests attacking crops, monitor crop damage, spray pesticides, and pollinate crops.
Amazon Behind in the Drone Delivery Race
Amazon was one of the first companies to grab public attention around the promise of drone deliveries, but lately they’ve been falling behind.
When the UAS IPP winners were announced last May, Amazon was conspicuously absent from the list of private companies whose applications had been accepted.
Not being involved in the IPP has almost certainly hurt Amazon’s advancement in securing FAA approval for making drone deliveries—just look at all the progress other IPP partners have made in getting permanent approvals, as compared to Amazon, who seems to be idling with no approval-related news in sight.
The biggest recent news about Amazon’s drone delivery program came earlier this month, when Amazon Prime Air unveiled its new delivery drone at their re:MARS conference, sharing plans that deliveries would start “soon.”
Despite the exciting design—the new Prime Air drone really is impressive, with a foldable design that allows for both vertical takeoff and horizontal flight—the fact that Amazon couldn’t provide more concrete details about when and where their new drone deliveries would take place doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
All this being said, right now it seems like Walmart’s drone plans exist primarily in patent-form.
When you poke around looking for Walmart drones, there just isn’t much evidence that they’re actually building any of the designs they’ve created and patented, so it could be that Amazon actually is ahead in the race between the two. After all, would you rather have more patents, or more actual drones?
Assuming Walmart and Amazon are in a war over consumer deliveries, does owning more patents mean you’re winning, or is that a little too simplistic? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.