At Your Service: Walmart Helper Drones Would Guide Shoppers

In another step toward automating its workforce and services, Walmart has applied to patent a system that would let shoppers with questions summon a drone for answers and guidance.

The retail giant earlier this month showed off a pilot project in Bay Area stores that uses robots to scan inventory on shelves.

On Thursday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office made public a patent application Walmart made in September, for a "providing drone assistance" system.

Notably, the application does not cite "because our customers often wander the aisles to the point of exhaustion seeking in vain for an employee" as a rationale for the system, but instead sticks to the process: a shopper wants to know the price of an item, or where to find an item, pulls out his or her phone -- or a loaner device -- and calls for a drone.

"The user can request price verification and/or navigation assistance, for example, through a user interface of the mobile electronic device," the patent application said, adding that a device loaned temporarily to the customer could be used to call the drone.

The drone could scan barcodes, and provide a display or even a machine-spoken answer. A shopper would not even have to seek out the item in the first place: the drone could be summoned, then sent to go find an item and check for the most up-to-date price, before flying back and providing the information to the customer.

For shoppers wanting to get their hands on an item, the drone could provide guidance.

"Navigation assistance can be in the form of a visual projection to indicate a path the user needs to take in order to reach an item or an audio output from the aerial drone which the user can follow to reach the item," the application said.

While Walmart faces a powerful...

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