The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted Walmart a patent for “shopping facility assistance systems, devices, and methods” - the latest indicator that the American multinational plans to roll out self-driving shopping carts.
Filed by Walmart in March, the patent describes a disc-shaped robotic device with motorized wheels, which transports and navigates the shopping carts through the store. It can move, scan, retrieve, and deliver products; check inventory; connect with customers and more.
In today’s blog, we’re going to examine the growing trend of retail companies investing in automation.
Self-Driving Shopping Carts
Walmart has been criticized by many groups over the years, including labour unions and other groups. In recent months, employees have lashed out at the company for failing to address such workplace issues as low wages, inadequate training and insufficient staffing. Interestingly, the company’s patent application notes that the new technology could succeed in addressing some of these challenges.
But how exactly will it work?
According to the patent, the system uses a combination of sensors, video cameras, a wireless network and a facility circuit system. Customers summon a cart through the Walmart mobile app or by using an in-store Kiosk.
The “motorized transport units”, as they are described in the patent, will then attach to the closest available shopping cart, dock with it and navigate through the store to find its intended target. Once the customer has finished with the cart, the motor detaches and it makes its own way back to the docking area.
The benefits of automation are obvious, and Walmart are far from the only company exploring the possibilities.
In August, home improvement retailer Lowe unveiled its own autonomous robot. The “LoweBot” uses a touchscreen. The LoweBot can then guide them to an item using smart laser sensors.
It can also use computer vision to send up-to-date information to store associates, even while it is ushering shoppers around the store. The company say they will roll out the LoweBot at 11 stores in the San Francisco Bay area over the coming months.
Whole Foods have also integrated technology in recent months as a means of reducing costs and targeting millennials. They have introduced iPad kiosks that let customers order food from the on-site kitchen, provide details about wine, provide digital scales for weighing foods and digital price tags.
E-commerce giant Amazon has been embracing automation for some time. Its warehouses - known as fulfilment centers - are using Kiva robots to carry shelves of products to human workers, who then pick what items are being shipped. Deutsche Bank says the machines save the company roughly $22 million at each fulfillment center.
We also talked about Amazon Dash in a recent blog. The company launched its one-click ordering device in the United Kingdom last month, which allows Prime customers to place orders for more than 40 brands at the touch of a button.
As more stores become automated, the technology will likely mean fewer and fewer human employees. But it’s not just the retail sector being hit by automation, it’s a host of others as well. For example, in agriculture experts predict fully automated farms will run with robots picking crops and drones monitoring them.
In healthcare, there is a growing demand for electronic health monitoring devices and self-service checkout technology is on the rise worldwide. Automation has even been making headlines in the fast-food industry in recent months. McDonald’s have rolled out a “Create Your Taste” touchscreen kiosks, on which custom burgers can be built as well as full-menu ordering.
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