We dug into Walmart's patents and found technology for automating the checkout process, guiding shoppers, and even flying drones throughout the store.
Walmart has filed hundreds of patents over the past several years, focused on everything from back-end web development to drones ferrying around products inside stores. Many of these technologies have not yet been deployed, but they still reveal insights into Walmart’s long-term strategy.
Most recently, we uncovered a new patent application for an airborne warehouse that would fly at altitudes of 500 – 1000 feet and launch smaller delivery drones to carry goods to the ground. Walmart has previously filed a number of drone patents — even a system for drones to fly inside stores above shoppers’ heads, carrying products from the storage room to the store shelves.
Many of Walmart’s patents also aim to ease shoppers’ journeys through the store, perhaps revealing the retailer’s concern that the scale of its stores may be overwhelming. We see Walmart looking at GPS systems, phone alerts, augmented reality, and even drones to help shoppers find products in stores.
Many other patents aim to speed the checkout process, some of them even offer automation similar to Amazon’s recent Amazon Go pilot. These patents suggest Walmart sees an opportunity to check out shoppers more quickly without hiring more staff — a number of its patents also cite high employee turnover as an issue, and aim to fill in the gaps with automation.
In addition, Walmart also has a patent application for a smart home-based automatic replenishment system, which offers a means of automating e-commerce sales.
Walmart’s patent activity also shows the rise and fall of certain technologies. In 2013, the launch of Google Glass drove widespread discussion of augmented reality glasses, and indeed, throughout 2013 – 2014 Walmart applied for several patents that used augmented reality wearables to guide shoppers. Of course, Google Glass didn’t end up catching on, and we don’t see Walmart applying for more augmented reality glasses-related patents in 2016. At the same time, Walmart seemed to jump on another trend when it began applying for drone patents in 2016.
It’s worth noting that Walmart’s patents diverge widely from those of rival Target. While Target has also applied for hundreds of patents over the years, its filings tend to deal with products, display units, shelving, and equipment whereas Walmart’s patents have focused on software and hardware technologies.
Using the CB Insights patent search engine, we dug into a series of recently published applications and grants from Walmart, highlighting the company’s ambitions to improve the in-store and e-commerce experience, as well as looking into automation, drones, augmented reality, and other tools. We’ll be updating this list with new applications and grants of interest as they are published. CB Insights subscribers can search and filter for the company’s patent activity by logging in.
This list is by no means comprehensive (Walmart has filed hundreds of patents) — the full list is available to our clients. We divided the highlighted patents below into the following sections:
Title: Gas-filled carrier aircrafts and methods of dispersing unmanned aircraft systems in delivering products
Date published (application): August 17, 2017
Date filed: February 8, 2017
Last year, CB Insights broke news about Amazon’s patent for an airborne warehouse — a sort of blimp-like mothership that would carry a variety of products, while smaller drones would ferry the products down to consumers on the ground.
Now, Walmart has published an application for a similar patent: a gas-based airship would carry both products and multiple smaller drones, and the smaller drones could bring products from the airship down to shoppers on the ground. The patent mentions the aircraft could fly at heights between 500 – 1000 feet, and it says the aircraft could either be operated by a human pilot or fly autonomously.
As described in the patent, the airship would contain gas chambers, a propulsion system, and a navigation control system. It would include a storage area that could hold multiple drones (layout shown in Figure 2 below), and there would be multiple launching bays from which drones could take off and land while the aircraft was in flight.
With systems like this, retailers could, for example, fly an airship to a neighborhood where multiple people had placed orders, then release a flock of drones to quickly deliver each package from the aircraft to each shoppers. The drones would then return to the airship and restock while the airship could fly to the next neighborhood. This would potentially be quicker and more fuel-efficient than requiring small drones to fly back to central warehouses between each delivery.
Title: Portable unmanned delivery aircraft launch systems, and methods of delivering products utilizing aircraft launch systems
Date published (application): March 23, 2017
Date filed: September 21, 2016
Fuel requirements and flight time limitations are a challenge for retailers looking to deliver by drone. We’ve seen several companies look to solve this by launching drones from larger vehicles, such as cars or trucks, so that the larger vehicle can drive most of the delivery distance and drones can quickly shuttle back and forth bringing packages to customers’ doors.
In this patent, Walmart describes a portable launch pad that would support this effort – the patent explains that the drone, package, and launch pad could be “readily transported to a vehicle that can transport the cooperated aircraft and package to a location proximate to a delivery site and [then] deploy the unmanned delivery aircraft to deliver the package.”
Title: Cargo delivery apparatus and methods
Date published (application): August 17, 2017
Date filed: February 14, 2017
While flying drones may be the most attention-grabbing, some of the most significant drone delivery trials so far have used ground-based drones — for example by startups like Starship, Dispatch, and Marble. Walmart recently filed a patent for its own ground-based delivery drones, which could carry a large number of packages and drive autonomously to deliver them.
The patent explains that the drone could store the packages for different shoppers in different lockers, and only allow access to a particular package when it arrived at that shopper’s address. The lockers could even rotate, it mentions, so that each shopper would only be presented with the locker containing their package.
Title: Method to carry an item within a retail shopping facility
Date published (application): March 16, 2017
Date filed: September 13, 2016
While most of the news about drones in retail focuses on drones used for delivering packages to shoppers’ homes, in this patent Walmart envisions using drones inside the store itself. The drones can fetch items for customers from the back of the store — including sizes or colors that are not displayed on the public in-store shelves — and fly across the store to bring them to a customer. The patent claims this could increase shopper satisfaction, because shoppers would no longer need to hunt down a store associate and wait for them to manually retrieve the item from the storeroom.
In this system, the drones would be for indoor use only. The patent raises the possibility of a small, drone-sized window in the wall between the shopping floor and the storeroom, so the drones can pass back and forth between the public and non-public areas.
Title: Method and apparatus for an airborne drone training track
Date published (application): April 27, 2017
Date filed: October 26, 2016
This patent takes a step back from the retail experience and proposes a method for training pilots to guide drones in an indoor environment. The patent describes tethering the drone to a track, connecting it to both a rail on the ceiling and a rail on the ground. It mentions that flight simulations are sometimes not sufficient for training, so with this track, pilots can practice flying the drone around the track without worrying about crashing and harming the drone or the building. This could potentially be used to help train employees who would pilot delivery drones or in-store or warehouse drones.
Title: Method and apparatus to automatically facilitate changes to a fresh produce display
Date published (application): March 2, 2017
Date filed: August 31, 2016
This patent links crop-monitoring drones on a farm directly to the fresh produce displays in stores. As described by Walmart, the drones can continuously monitor the crops in the field to determine their maturity, as well as any spoilage, insect infestations, etc. Based on the drone’s analysis, store displays can automatically update to show upcoming produce shipments, along with when they will arrive, how much will arrive, and whether they are locally sourced. This can help stores better prepare for and promote incoming seasonal produce, and help shoppers gain a better understanding of produce’s origins.
Title: Motorized transport unit worker support system and methods
Date published (application) : September 8, 2016
Date filed: March 4, 2016
This patent describes a network of multiple autonomous robots which can attach to shopping carts and other items to move them throughout the store. These robots would be managed by a central computer network, and they appear similar to Roombas, or to Amazon’s warehouse robots – as shown in the image below, they could slide below the shopping cart and attach.
The patent explains this could be used to help restock store shelves during busy times – the robot could drive an empty cart into the stocking room to be filled with items, and then push the cart out into the store to the relevant area, where an employee could shelve the items. The system could also help retrieve abandoned shopping carts, move products around the store, or send a shopping cart to support a customer.
Title: Tracking effectiveness of remote sales assistance using augmented reality device
Date granted: March 7, 2017
Date filed: February 15, 2013
This patent envisions shoppers wearing augmented reality glasses. While shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, the shopper could ask for help into the glasses’ microphone, and receive assistance from a bot or a remote staff associate. The system would then check the customer’s ultimate purchase at the cash register, and judge the effectiveness of the previous sales assistance based on whether the shopper purchased the suggested item.
This patent builds atop a prior patent by Walmart, which focused on providing remote sales assistance via augmented reality glasses, but did not include the feature of monitoring the shopper’s purchases to see whether the assistance was successful.
Title: Method and system for managing an electronic shopping list with gestures
Date granted: September 20, 2016
Date filed: January 20, 2013
This patent describes a method to display shopping lists in augmented reality, while letting shoppers gesture to edit them – such as swiping to display the next item on the list. Therefore, shoppers wouldn’t have to hold a physical shopping list, freeing up their hands.
Title: Customized impulse shelves
Date granted: July 26, 2016
Date filed: January 29, 2013
Retailers generally stock the shelves beside the cash registers (the impulse shelves) with candy, soda, gum, magazines, and other affordable items that shoppers might buy on a whim before checking out. This patent envisions a way to drive more spending by sending shoppers customized notifications when they approach the shelves, or even having machines that would adapt in real-time to highlight products tailored to each customer.
According to the patent images above, possible use cases include a) sensing which items are already in a customer’s cart via RFID tags, and suggesting supplemental items at the register, or b) identifying the shopper by sensing their cell phone or loyalty card, and suggesting items personalized to their shopping history. The items could be stocked on the shelves for instant purchase, or the machine could show the item on an interactive screen, and the shopper could use the screen to instantly place an e-commerce order for the item.
Title: Methods and systems for rendering an optimized route in accordance with GPS data and a shopping list
Date granted: March 14, 2017
Date filed: October 12, 2012
This patent describes a system to combine the map of a store with a user’s digital shopping list to determine the most efficient route for the shopper to take through the store. This route could be displayed on the shopper’s smartphone.
The patent also includes a method to group items on the shopping list by type – for example, automatically grouping all food items together in the list, along with showing the shopper where to find them in the store.
Title: Location-based alerts for shopper
Date granted: March 7, 2017
Date filed: January 23, 2013
This patent aims to remind shoppers to buy certain products as they walk through the store. The reminders could be based on a shopping list, or could be generated automatically based on data on that shopper’s frequently bought items. Alerts would be based on in-store location data, ensuring the shopper doesn’t walk by an aisle without picking up the needed product. Additionally, the patent describes using the customer’s shopping history to alert them as they walk past products they’ve bought previously, but long enough ago that they may need it again.
Title: Computer vision navigation
Date granted: May 31, 2016
Date filed: November 25, 2014
This patent uses machine vision to help guide shoppers through a store, replacing GPS-based systems or beacon/sensor-based systems. Here, Walmart describes a device that can recognize the products on store shelves, and thereby know where the shopper is within the store. Then, the device can guide the shopper to a desired destination. The device would also be able to match an image to a product, so the shopper could show it an image of something and the device would lead the shopper to the relevant product in the store.
Title: Recommending food items based on personal information and nutritional content
Date granted: January 31, 2017
Date filed: November 19, 2014
Walmart has invested in its grocery business to drive brick-and-mortar store traffic and serve as competitive differentiation from Amazon (though of course, Amazon is now moving into the grocery space as well). In the system described by this patent, the shopper would input information on who they are shopping for (i.e. family members) and the software would generate nutritional recommendations for each member. It would then suggest specific food items meeting those nutritional guidelines, and adjust its recommendations depending on what the shopper has already added to the cart.
This could be used while grocery shopping in store or online.
Checkout process & security
Title: Method and apparatus for automated shopper checkout using radio frequency identification technology
Date granted: July 15, 2014
Date filed: November 7, 2008
This patent describes a system for using RFID tags to sense the contents of a shopper’s cart, replacing the current systems where employees scan the items at the cash register, or shoppers scan the items themselves at a self-service cash register system. As shoppers approach the checkout lines (in the “interrogation zone” in the drawings below) their cart would be doubly audited. An RFID reader would receive signals from each item in the shopper’s cart, while a camera would also visually scan the cart’s contents.
If the RFID reader and visual scan match, the customer could potentially proceed through the zone and be checked out automatically. However, if the reading is inconclusive, or if the store is not too busy, the shopper could be directed to a cash register for manual checkout. In June 2014, Walmart re-filed the patent, but this second application has not yet been granted.
Title: Shopping process including monitored shopping cart basket weight
Date granted: March 28, 2017
Date filed: January 29, 2013
To make a rapid or automated checkout process more secure, Walmart describes this system to a) monitor the weight of a shopping cart, and b) compare that to the expected weight of the cart based on the items scanned during checkout, so they can ensure the weights match and there are no unscanned items concealed in the shopping cart. In the process described here, customers would be able to check out themselves by scanning the items in their carts with a smartphone app.
If the weight of the basket does not match the expected weight of the scanned products, the system will alert a store associate.
Title: Detecting customer dissatisfaction using biometric data
Date granted: March 29, 2016
Date filed: November 28, 2012
This patent describes a way to improve customer service by analyzing biometric data on customers waiting in the checkout line via data captured by video cameras trained on the customers. If the system senses growing dissatisfaction among shoppers, such as frustration at a slow checkout line, it can notify store staff to open up more checkout lines or otherwise engage with the shoppers.
The patent also suggests monitoring the time between a shopper joining a checkout line and the actual checkout, to make sure shoppers aren’t waiting too long. Furthermore, Walmart could monitor whether shoppers who seem to be dissatisfied do or do not return to the store in the future.
Title: Retail subscription in internet of things environment
Date published (application): May 4, 2017
Date filed: October 19, 2016
Automated replenishment of products has been a goal for many retailers, but it requires integration of the physical world (to sense when a product has been used up) and the digital world (to automatically re-order the product). We’ve seen efforts ranging from Amazon’s IoT Amazon Dash buttons, to smart home products from Samsung and others that can track the contents of your closets or refrigerators. Recently, Walmart filed a patent application to add IoT tags to products to monitor their usage in the shopper’s home. The tag could use Bluetooth, radio frequency, infrared, or NFC technology, and would automatically determine when a product needs replenishment, upgrades, or replacement.
This tag could automatically place orders to replenish or replace products, ensuring continued purchases but not forcing the shopper to adhere to a pre-set schedule (e.g. a monthly subscription, which may be too frequent for some shoppers and too slow for others). The patent notes the possibility of integrating product expiration dates, or ways to notify users if the product has been recalled. Furthermore, it mentions the tags could capture more general data on where the products are kept and how often they are used, which could bring valuable insights on shopper habits to Walmart.
Title: E-Commerce system with personal price points
Date published (application): August 28, 2014
Date filed: February 26, 2013
Many retailers have used “dynamic pricing” in e-commerce, or adapted the prices displayed on their websites in real time based on shopper demographics and past purchasing habits. However back in 2013, Walmart applied for a patent for a system that would allow shoppers to set their own desired prices, and put through an automatic purchase order once that price is reached. (This is somewhat like a limit order in the stock market world.) The patent describes the system as a more useful extension of sale or promotion alerts that retailers send out via text or email, since the item could be purchased automatically as soon as it went on sale.
Title: System and method for making gift recommendations using social media data
Date granted: October 27, 2015
Date filed: September 26, 2012
Walmart describes methods to parse social media data in order to predict what gift items a customer may like. The system uses textual analysis to determine the subject’s interests, and also considers the interests of the subject’s other friends on social media. The program uses natural language processing (NLP) and sentiment analysis.
Title: Integrated loyalty program and game mechanic
Date granted: February 21, 2017
Date filed: August 29, 2014
In this patent, Walmart proposes using digital (virtual) goods from online games to promote a retailer’s loyalty program. When shoppers buy physical products from the retailer, they earn these virtual goods for use in a game. The game could be managed either by the retailer itself, or by a third-party gaming company, but it would be integrated with the point-of-sale system.
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