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Why Walmart is investing in flying delivery drones

The retail giant applied for a permit to begin testing flying drones outdoors, in a move likely aimed at competing proposals for delivery service from Amazon and Google.

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    A "Phantom 2" drone by Chinese manufacturer DJI flies during the 4th Intergalactic Meeting of Phantom's Pilots (MIPP) in Bois de Boulogne, Paris in March 2014. On Monday, Walmart applied for an exemption from federal regulators to begin testing drones for a variety of commercial uses, including home delivery.
    Charles Platiau/ Reuters file
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Walmart hopes to use drones to make home deliveries to customers, curb-side pickups, and other warehouse tasks, filing a petition with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Monday to test the drones.

The move, which was first reported by Reuters, likely indicates the retail giant is aiming to compete with Amazon’s Prime Air delivery service, which received FAA approval in April to begin testing drones.

Walmart has previously been testing drones indoors and is now seeking to use them outside for a variety of purposes, including testing home delivery in small residential neighborhoods after obtaining permission from local residents.

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The test would see whether a drone could be launched from a truck “to safely deliver a package at a home and then return safely,” the company’s application says, according to Reuters.

Walmart says drones could have a variety of uses, both for customers and for the company’s own operations, including inspecting digital tags on trucks and an Ikea-like catalog-store model where products are dropped off in a Walmart garage for customers to collect, the BBC reports.

“Drones have a lot of potential to further connect our vast network of stores, distribution centers, fulfillment centers and transportation fleet,” Walmart spokesman Dan Toporek says in a statement. “There is a Walmart within five miles of 70 percent of the U.S. population, which creates some unique and interesting possibilities for serving customers with drones."

Commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles – the technical name regulators use for drones – is currently illegal, but companies can apply for special exemptions from the FAA to fly the drones in “low-risk, controlled environments,” the agency says. The approval process typically takes about 120 days, with regulators granting more than 2,000 exemptions so far.

Walmart’s move to test drone delivery services comes after several companies, including Amazon and Google, have unveiled their own plans for drones. But comprehensive drone regulation has been long-stalled, with FAA officials saying in June that regulations could come in the next year. The agency recently missed a Sept. 30 deadline to regulate drones.

As regulators examine the growing use of commercial drones, there are also questions of how the devices may be used, and whether there are more altruistic uses of the technology beyond the long-rumored home delivery service promised by Amazon and now Walmart.

“There are lots of good uses for drones that will come to pass: using them for inspections, for law enforcement, for agriculture, for delivering medicine to isolated areas,” Richard Whittle, author of the book "Predator: the Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution,” and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center told the Monitor in July. “Those sorts of things clearly will be of great benefit to society. I’m not sure how important it is to get even the books that I write delivered by drone."

If their request is approved, Walmart plans to use drones made by Chinese company SZ DJI Technology.

While far from a household name, DJI controls more than 70 percent of the growing consumer drone market, Forbes reports, thanks to sales of its Phantom 3, an inexpensive camera-equipped quadcopter that costs less than $1,000.  

Walmart said in its filing that it also hopes test DJI’s S900 drone, which costs $3,800 and is often used on professional camera shoots.

Observers say Walmart’s move may be somewhat of an attempt to keep up the with the Joneses in a rapidly-growing industry.

“It’s wonderful for the [public relations] and image of the company,” Paul Doersch, the chief executive officer of Kespry, a startup that develops commercial drones for construction and surveying uses, told Forbes. “Which drone [Walmart is] using is really besides the point,” he added. “They’re just trying to be part of the club.”

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