Autonomous shelf-scanning robots to assist Walmart workers

US retailer Walmart is expanding a trial to explore how autonomous shelf-scanning robots can streamline work for staff, by scanning item labels to see if they are out of date, out of stock, or displaying incorrect information.

Walmart will use fully-autonomous robots from Bossa Nova Robotics to handle “repeatable, predictable and manual” jobs relating to item checks. The robots will scan for incorrect prices, missing labels and could be used to check expiry dates on perishable food.

According to the company’s chief technology officer Jeremy King, the robots are up to three times faster than human workers, while removing any risk of human error. But king has moved to calm any concerns that the automated robots could replace human workers, noting that they are there to compliment staff capabilities.

The shelf-scanning robots won’t actually have too much trouble scanning the labels of food items in the future. Walmart is among the 400 consumer goods firms to commit to simplify food date labels by 2020. The firms have agreed to use one label at a time, either “use by” for perishable items or “best before” for non-perishables.

Walmart had been trialling the roaming scanners at select locations, but has now expanded the trial to run at an additional 50 stores. Each robot can use 3D imaging to dodge shoppers or obstacles and can return to blocked paths later on to complete the scan.

“We’ve tested this technology in a small number of stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California,” Walmart said in a blog post. “Based on these initial tests, we’re expanding it to an additional 50 locations. As with anything we roll out to our stores, the feedback from associates and customers will guide us in how and where we use this technology in the future.

“This combination of people and technology is helping make our stores more convenient and easier to shop, ensuring that products are available when our customers want them. It’s just another example of how we’re using technology to save our associates and customers time.”

Tech trials

Automation has boosted job creation and profits in the utilities sector, and Walmart believes the robots will enable staff to focus on other important jobs. A technician will be available onsite at the stores, if needed.

Walmart is turning to technological innovations to drive its corporate and social strategies. The retailer joined the likes of Unilever and Nestlé in collaborating with tech giant IBM to explore how the global food supply chain can benefit from blockchain technology.

In California, the company penned a deal to combine energy storage systems with on-site renewables to balance energy generation at 27 stores.

Matt Mace

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