Once the latest must-have plaything of gadget lovers the world over, drones are now being put to use across various industries to help companies save money, improve safety and enhance the efficiency of their operations.
In agriculture, for example, today’s tech-savvy farmers employ drones to collect data on their crops and then use that data to improve the yield from their fields. Construction companies, meanwhile, have adopted the technology to speed up site surveys that have traditionally been done on foot and filmmakers are stretching their production budgets further by swapping helicopters for high-end ‘unmanned flight vehicles’ to capture aerial shots.
Of course, the logistics industry has never been slow to adopt new ideas but, while there has been plenty of talk of the role that these flying robots might play across the parcel and online order fulfilment sector, consumer drone delivery is yet to have been tested on a large scale anywhere in the world.
However, within the warehouse or distribution centre building itself, drones are considered to be on the verge of making the transition from marketing gimmick to feasible reality.
The ‘game changer’ has been the development of effective obstacle and collision avoidance systems that make it possible to safely and reliably navigate a drone indoors. Prior to the evolution of this technology – which does not rely on GPS signals – enthusiasm for deploying aerial robotics in an intralogistics setting was, for obvious reasons, muted at best.
But, the availability of effective navigation technology has unlocked the drone’s intralogistics potential. Indeed, in its 2019 white paper, Applications of Drones in Warehouse Operations, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology forecasts that the market will grow by 20% year-on-year to reach $29billion by 2027.
At the moment, payload restrictions and ‘gripping’ issues limit the drone’s suitability for most goods movement tasks – although they are currently being used at a number of manufacturing facilities to transport parts from the warehouse to the production line.
So, while they are not (yet) physically moving stock or order picking within warehouses, drones are seen as an ideal tool for data collection and inventory management.
“When inventories are carried out and managed manually, teams must walk round the warehouse, scanning and counting items. The process can be slow, labour-intensive, dangerous, expensive, and prone to inaccuracies,” says Joseph Waldron, Product Integration Director at commercial drone experts, RAWview.
He adds: “Using drones for inventory management can increase inventory accuracy, while reducing labour costs and minimising health and safety risks amongst the workforce. It also means that workers can continue with their daily duties, rather than being pulled away to carry out inventory-related tasks.”
In collaboration with drone technology specialist, Verity, DSV Global Transport and Logistics recently piloted an autonomous inventory drone system at one of its facilities in the Netherlands.
The drones, which were operated mainly at night time when workers were not present, scanned barcodes and detected if pallet positions where empty or occupied to deliver real time data and allow DSV to avoid manual counts.
“It’s fully autonomous – there is no human interface. The drones are controlled by the system and they know exactly where they are within the warehouse,” explained Luca Graf, Senior Director, Innovation at DSV Panalpina.
By introducing the autonomous drone scanning system, DSV found they were able to reduce stock holding, eliminate the disruption of manual stock checks and speed up the inventory management process significantly.
“During the trial period we spent 50% less time collecting the inventory and when the system is up and running, the pallet inventory counting process will be 80% quicker,” said Joost Spoel, manager of the DSV warehouse that was used as the test site.
The pilot was considered such a success that DSV is now in the process of rolling out the drone system at other facilities across its estate.
So, are drones the future for warehouse operations? While Amazon and others continue to work on the development of UFOs (unmanned flying objects) for parcel deliveries, it seems that delivery drones are still some way off. But, it is a very real possibility that, as part of the broader trend towards the use of automation and robotics and driven by the availability of ever more sophisticated control software, drones will become an increasingly common sight inside the modern warehouse.