Walmart’s Shopping Carts Drive Themselves

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Supermarket shopping is convenient. But there’s a tad unpleasantness that creeps in when we need to snake through the alleys, looking up and down, left and right for our desired products. Worse, it gets all the more cumbersome walking with that bulky metal shopping cart, twisting and turning it along those narrow pathways, meandering through a crowded shopping floor.

Walmart’s experience in the shopping space has found it scouring for a solution to this problem that customers face. Walmart has painted a futuristic vision of a self-driving shopping cart that it has showcased in its recent patent application (US20160260161A1) titled “Shopping Facility Assistance Systems, Devices and Methods”.

These shopping carts drive themselves from the parking lot or docking stations to customers who call for one. These carts could include a motorized disk-shaped navigational system that can also steer customers towards the exact location of items on their shopping list. This magic is performed via a plurality of sensors, motorized transport units, and a control circuit.

The shopping carts come with detachable internet-connected motors equipped with multiple sensors and video cameras. These motors can be controlled by a facility control circuit system that is configured to receive a shopping cart request from a user interface device associated with the customer (such as a smartphone, an in-store kiosk or other mobile devices). These systems can determine at least one available shopping cart based on data collected by the plurality of sensors, select a motorized transport unit to dock in and transport the available cart, and provide instructions to the motorized transport unit to bring the available shopping cart to the customer.

The customer has the option to either detach the shopping cart from the robotic disk and push it himself or navigate the motorized unit using a mobile device. The cart, controlled by a centralized computer, navigates through the store using sensors. Customers can wirelessly beam their shopping list to their cart chauffeur which will guide them through the store item-by-item.

Voice your commands

What makes this patent all the more interesting is that the system could respond to voice commands. ‘The user may speak voice commands to the motorized transport unit itself and/or to the user interface unit,’ reads the patent.

Locating a shopper

But how does the cart locate the shopper? The patent offers a few possible ideas, including LEDs that are mounted in the ceiling at known positions that encode data in the emitted light for identification. The patent specifies one company offering such capabilities – ByteLight system from ByteLight of Boston. In embodiments discussed, a typical display screen of a smartphone can be used as a light sensor or light receiver to receive and process data encoded into the light from the ByteLight source. The patent also considers low-energy radio beacons, typically using Bluetooth and audio beacons.

These motorized transport units can also catch hold of carts adrift and return them to their docking station. This means that shoppers can leave their carts anywhere in the parking lot and the cart will drive itself back to a collection area. When needed, it can also drive itself to a customer shopping within the store.

That’s not all. The patent further lays out possibilities of the carts working with a robotized inventory system such that they can be transported to specific locations where items can be placed, swept, or blown into the cart.

The benefits of this invention can be manifold. Not just will this make parking lots neater, it will also help avoid clumsily strewn abandoned shopping carts and allow the store employees to focus on more profitable customer-service tasks. The self-driving cart will also improve customer experience specifically when employees are busy, or are too new to guide a customer in the store.

Why Microsoft’s smart shopping cart didn’t click?

The notion of an intelligent automated shopping cart is however not entirely new. In Feb 2012, Microsoft demoed an RFID equipped smart cart that would follow customers around the store. The prototype, however, suffered a few technical glitches. Microsoft put out a field of infrared dots with a laser and mapped distortions to navigate the carts. But above a certain light level, the dots were washed out and couldn’t be seen. This happened when the carts were near windows or skylights. Also, calculating how to make the cart move precisely in close spaces was complex and difficult.

With increasing competition from big players like Amazon, and the proliferation of robotics applications in warehousing and large retail operations, Walmart has been researching on new tech-driven products focused on the in-store experience. The retailer introduced Walmart Pay, a mobile wallet, in December 2015. Walmart also hinted on using proprietary drones for inventory management and other business functions. Further, it is working on an online grocery service that brings a cart full of edibles right to the customer’s vehicle in the parking lot. In some cities the firm has teamed up with Uber and Lyft for home delivery. The retailer is also toying with drones as a method to deliver online orders.

A few months back Bloomberg reported that Five Elements Robotics had collaborated with WalMart to build tech savvy carts. The publication of this patent now has more heads turned towards the e-commerce giant. Though Walmart has not announced implementation plans for self-driving cart systems, many in the industry are hopeful that Walmart might actually choose to manufacturer and deploy these robotic carts sometime soon. That day might not be far when you might step outside of the autonomous self-driving car you summoned to reach Walmart, ride a hover board into the store, and follow around a self-driving shopping cart that knows exactly what you want.

(Featured image source:

Subhasri Das
Subhasri Das

Subhasri is a technocrat who enjoys reading between the lines of patents to understand their hidden value.

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