Walmart is developing a drone

Drone cesAlex Wong/Getty ImagesA DJI employee demonstrates flying a drone at Consumer Electronics Show 2016 in Las Vegas on January 7, 2016. (Note: This is not the drone Walmart will be using. Images of Walmart’s drone cannot yet be released.)

Walmart is getting into the drone game.

Walmart’s VP of Emerging Sciences Shekar Natarajan demoed the retailer’s new technology to reporters from a Bentonville, Arkansas distribution center on Thursday, on the eve of its annual shareholders meeting.

The drone technology will be replacing the jobs of inventory quality assurance employees, cutting inventory checks across massive distribution centres — the one in Bentonville is 1.2 million square feet — from one month down to a single day.

When Natarajan joined Walmart in November 2014, he and his team were tasked with investigating cutting edge technologies, asking, “How can we can converge them in ways that make sense for us?” he said.

The application at the top of the list was using drone technology to improve the safety and efficiency of Walmart’s 190 US distribution centres.

In collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA, Walmart is developing internally autonomous drone technology that allows a quad-copter drone, roughly 3 x 3 feet, to take 30 images per second from a top-mounted camera.

The camera is linked to a control center and scans for tracking number matches. Matches are registered as green, empty spaces as blue, and mismatches as red. An employee monitors the drone’s progress from a computer screen.

Natarajan said that the technology is six to nine months from maturation. Because it is still in early development phase, there is not yet a specific launch plan, but Walmart is planning to integrate the drones into all of its distribution centres. The company also noted that employees who served as inventory checkers will be given new job opportunities to ensure a smooth transition.

Walmart did not reveal how much money it has invested in its Emerging Sciences division, but noted that future applications of the drone, as well as other artificial intelligence and virtual reality projects, are in the works.

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