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Walmart Explores Blockchain-Based Delivery System in New Patent

Is blockchain technology the answer to fighting porch pirates and ensuring safe delivery of items from online retailers to customers’ homes? Walmart seems to be at least exploring the possibility, according to a patent application that the company recently filed.

The application, dated July 5, describes a system of “locker docking stations” that could be “located at a user's home, at public locations such as transportation hubs, public venues, or the like, or other desired locations.” The stations would coordinate “directly with one or more delivery systems” to organize the delivery of items.

On its face, the idea described in Walmart’s patent seems less than revolutionary. Amazon — the big competitor that Walmart surely had in mind when writing the patent — is already doing something similar through its locker delivery system and Amazon Key.

Yet in one key perspective, the Walmart vision is novel: It incorporates a blockchain — or it might, at least.

Walmart seems to be exploring a system of “smart,” network-connected lockers that can accept the delivery of goods. A software system would keep track of which goods are delivered to which lockers, as well as when they are retrieved by consumers. 

It’s easy to see how such a system would be useful for online retailers and shoppers. It would help solve the curse of porch pirates — criminals who steal online deliveries that are left on customers’ porches or in other unsecured locations. It could also help retailers like Walmart to improve delivery logistics by tracking the availability of secure delivery stations in real time, and potentially sharing that information with partners.

But the extent to which blockchain technology could factor into Walmart’s delivery system is not entirely clear from the patent. The patent does state that in “some embodiments” each delivery box would operate as a “node within a blockchain network,” with “blockchain contracts” used to govern the delivery of items.

What’s more, Walmart apparently envisions storing all of the delivery data on a “public ledger.” It seems pretty clear, then, that the company wants to use a public blockchain, rather than a permissioned one, as the data backbone for its delivery system.

Why would Walmart opt for a public blockchain, rather than keeping all of its delivery data private? The reason is not spelled out in the patent application, but it might have to do with making the delivery system transparent and compatible with the needs of any organization that partners with Walmart in selling or delivering goods.

Lest blockchain fans get too excited about Walmart’s patent application, it’s important to note that the text makes clear that a decentralized public ledger is not the only type of data-tracking solution that Walmart has in mind for its delivery system. The application also says that, as an alternative to the public ledger, a “central control circuit” could oversee the delivery network. That sounds much more like a traditional centralized data governance system of the type that Amazon is already using to manage secured deliveries.

Skeptics might also question how thoroughly Walmart has thought out the role played by a blockchain in the delivery system that it seeks to patent. In particular, it’s a bit unclear why each delivery box would have to operate as a node on the network. That requirement would mean that the blockchain itself would be hosted on the same hardware that is used to accept smart deliveries, which seems unnecessary.

Wouldn’t it be more efficient to run the blockchain nodes on conventional hardware and limit the role of the delivery boxes to accepting deliveries? Otherwise, the boxes would presumably need to have a considerable amount of computing power, which might make them a bit expensive.

The limited information in Walmart’s patent application makes it hard to know for certain how exactly the blockchain would feature into the delivery system. And it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Walmart has actual plans to build the system; companies file patents all the time simply to prevent competitors from implementing an idea, not because they plan to pursue the idea themselves. Still, this is a patent application to watch. It just may give blockchain technology another major real-world enterprise use case — and make online shopping safer at the same time.

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