Wal-Mart and Amazon may soon be taking their e-commerce battle into the air. Wal-Mart applied to federal regulators on Monday for permission to test drones for home delivery and for use at its distribution centers and stores.In pushing ahead with drone technology, the company follows Amazon, which has been trumpeting its “Prime Air” drone delivery plans since 2013. Amazon has called for air space to be designated specifically for commercial drones, and its chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, said this year that he believed seeing drones would one day be “as common as seeing a mail truck.”Wal-Mart has been carrying out indoor testing of two types of drones for several months, and “is ready to move forward as quickly as possible” in putting them to use, said Dan Toporek, a spokesman for the retailer.He said Wal-Mart envisioned a wide range of potential uses. “You can envision a scenario where a drone is at one of our million-square-foot distribution centers, and it can fly through the center and do inventory work,” he said. “And we’re thinking, can we fly something from one distribution center to a fulfillment center, or to a store?” he said.“Then there’s the idea of curbside pickup. Could you bring goods out to somebody at the corner of the parking lot, for example, using a drone?” he said. “And then there’s delivering to residential neighborhoods. When you have stores within five miles of 70 percent of the U.S. population, we have close reach to get to a lot of people.”
According to Wal-Mart’s filing with the Federal Aviation Administration, the company is testing Phantom 3 and S900 drones manufactured by SZ DJI Technology of China. Those drones have so far been widely used by film crews to shoot aerial scenes.Still, Amazon and Wal-Mart — along with a flurry of entrepreneurs who have rushed to figure out new applications for drones — must first clear numerous regulatory hurdles. Though individuals can fly drones, now available for as little as $50, federal regulations still prohibit their commercial use. One big hurdle, experts say, will be convincing regulators that retailers and other operators can safely fly drones out of their field of vision.Still, companies are testing drone technology in the expectation that regulators may soon loosen rules over their use. Officials at the FAA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wal-Mart’s application. The agency has said it intends to speed up its drafting of drone regulations.Image credits: Thinkstock© 2015 New York Times News Service
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