Walmart applied for permission with U.S. regulatory agencies today for permission to test drones for package delivery. The moves comes almost a year after online retailer Amazon announced its own drone-based delivery program, Prime Air.
In an application under Section 333 of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Modernization and Reform Act, first uncovered by Reuters this evening, Walmart applied for an exemption which will allow it to commercially operate Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) under certain circumstances.
The company’s application sought exemptions to conduct outdoor unmanned aircraft flights as part of a research and development effort centered on using unmanned aircraft for operations.
The sphere of domestic drones has been a bit of a wild west in regards to applicable legislation, but regulatory bodies are quickly catching up. Last week, the FAA and DOT announced a program that will require all drone operators to register their unmanned vehicles with the federal government. Section 333 exemptions allow companies looking to explore the use of commercial drones (up to 55 pounds in weight) a means of doing so. After moving at a snail’s pace for months, the FAA has significantly sped up approval of the exemptions and as of October has approved over 2,020 of these applications.
While competitors in this nascent space like Google and Amazon have largely focused on developing proprietary vehicle technologies, Walmart is working with well-known drone manufacturer DJI. In the test flights that Walmart is seeking permission for, the company detailed that it will be using the DJI Phantom 3 Professional and the DJI S900 systems. While neither of the two vehicles are available for sale on Walmart’s website, the Phantom 3 and S900 retail for $1,224 and $1,400 on Amazon.
In addition to investigating the pick up and release of packages, Walmart’s application mentions other potential uses for drones. The submission included five different sample scenarios, which ranged from “aerial data acquisition in support of business analytics” to operations in small residential areas for package delivery. The application also listed grocery pickups, distribution center operations, and rural acreage tracts as other operations areas.
While Walmart’s application does acknowledge the risk involved with UAS in the same space as equipment and human workers, it does not seem like they, or anyone, has a solution to the problem of accidents. Although researchers at ETH Zurich developed a system that allows quadcopters to fly in the event of a rotor failing, most quadcopter drones will fail catastrophically in the event of loss of thrust from one of their four rotors.
Until complete and foolproof reliability is achieved, the danger of a quadcopter delivery vehicle falling on you from 300 feet in the air remains a real concern.