Step into a Walmart warehouse next year and you may find yourself in a sci-fi movie set, with autonomous drones swooping through the aisles, scanning the ceiling-high stacks with cameras.
Missing from this high-tech scene will be human employees counting boxes. The drones, part of a trial currently running in a Walmart distribution center, are there to run inventory. Shekar Nataraja, Walmart VP of emerging science, told the New York Times that the drones can count as much in a day as humans can manage in a month.
Stocktaking is dull, repetitive work and perfectly suited for robots. (Although when we imagined a future of flying robots, we probably imagined them doing something more magical than flying through a warehouse, systematically scanning column after column of pallets.) The drones could be working in live warehouses in as little as six to nine months, says Reuters, and although a Walmart spokesperson said that the drones could be operated by current warehouse employees, it seems more likely that the robots will be taking over jobs. After all, what's the point of having a human around to slow things down? Especially if you have to pay them a living wage, which isn't something that has historically interested Walmart.
The drones carry custom-built cameras that run at 30 frames per second, and software that alerts their meatbag coworkers if anything is misplaced or running low. By increasing automation, Walmart hopes to increase its efficiency to compete with Amazon and chase growth, which, at 7% on $115.9 billion in revenue last year, is apparently still not good enough.
Technology-wise, a warehouse seems like the perfect environment for drones. It is stable and wind-free, and the bots could even return to base and recharge themselves, like a Roomba. If the trial is successful, it's hard to make a case for sticking with humans when the efficiency—one day instead of one month to do the same job—is so much better. (So maybe it's time for a basic income.) And warehouses might not be the only place where Walmart can find jobs for drone workers. "The company said drones may have other applications," writes the Time's Rachel Abrams, "perhaps even in its stores."
Perhaps the drones would do the same stock-counting job that they do in the warehouses, or maybe they could be sent to run errands currently done by people, like checking prices on shelves. One thing is certain, though. A visit to a Walmart sports section is about to get a whole lot more fun, what with golf clubs and baseball bats at hand, and robots gliding overhead. Perhaps the downsized human employees can find new work as bodyguards for the robot employees.
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