There have been several high-profile European trials of drones for customer delivery, and in some parts of the world these are now in regular use transporting healthcare supplies. This is only part of a drone’s capabilities – they have the potential to offer significant safety, efficiency, cost and accuracy benefits in the supply chain both inside and outside the warehouse.
The benefits of a drone over other MHE:
- Efficiency – speed of drones vs. MHE movements
- Capability – can reach areas within the warehouse or remote communities that are difficult to reach by other means
- Safety – reducing the need for personnel working at height – 80 major injuries per year due to working at height
- Financial – drone costs can be lower than MHE required for surveying or counting
- Accuracy – drones can electronically capture data (e.g. barcode, mapping) and integrate directly into existing systems
- Environment – often drones are battery powered and have zero emissions at the point of use
- Need line of sight (LOS) for effective & safe control (unless CAA agrees experimentation corridor)
- Developing CAA regulatory environment for drone operations
- Presence of people, fixed structures and moving vehicles requiring obstacle sensing & safe avoidance
- A drone’s design will constrain its payload which will limit its capabilities
Additional challenges with flying outside the warehouse:
- UK airspace is already busy
- Observers will be needed for extended- and beyond-LOS operations
- Performance and flying characteristics affected by wind & weather
- Drones not yet integrated into UK air traffic management/control
- Need to sense and avoid other air traffic
Safety and regulation
For internal operations where the risk is to the drone operators, and company staff and property, the requirements are likely to be set by the insurer. These requirements could be the satisfaction of product safety rules (e.g. CE marking or similar), and HSE requirements for safe equipment, operator training & safe operation of equipment.
The difference between internal and external drone use is the exposure of uninvolved persons to any unmitigated safety risks of aircraft operation, i.e. crash leading to loss of life, injury and/or damage to property. This is when civil aviation bodies, such as the CAA, will require compliance with aircraft airworthiness and operations regulations.
Currently a commercial drone operator requires a pilot and owner/drone registration (Flyer and Operator Ids) and a Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO). The system is transitioning this year (currently December 2020) to a Certificate of Competence (CoC) and the General VLOS Certificate (GVC), with an Operational Authorisation issued after a practical flying test and predefined risk assessment for the particular flying task intended to be conducted.
The circumstances for which regulation compliance is simplest will be for light weight and small drones operated internally (where the risk to uninvolved persons is eliminated) or externally (where the risk to uninvolved persons can be controlled), separated from other air traffic, away from aircraft operating sites and below 400ft.
Current uses of drones in logistics:
- Marketing photography (teams, operations & buildings)
- Inventory counting/checking
- DroneScan integrated to WCS CSnx WMS trialled at Musgrave, Ireland
- Flytbase have autonomous drone system at IAG Cargo, Madrid
- Audi vehicle location at Neckarsulm, Germany
- Medical supply to islands and remote areas
- Windracers’ Isle of Wight trial
- Skyports in the Scottish Highlands
- Zipline in Africa
- UK customer delivery of small packages
- Amazon trial Cambridge, UK
Potential additional logistics uses:
- Airliner Maintenance Repair & Overhaul (MRO) organisations are using drones to survey aircraft condition during scheduled maintenance. These techniques could be applied for racking and automation equipment surveys.
- Drones are currently used for building and land surveying, and these technologies and operational techniques could be expanded to Logistics for building surveys (e.g. internal/external, structure, solar panels, bulk liquids, etc).
- Aerial video of operational yards and warehouses to enable analysis of people, machine & stock movements for optimisation, congestion relief, etc.
- Stock condition and warehouse perimeter checks
Logistics research and development :
- Consolidated delivery, transporting multiple, larger items, e.g. SF Express (China), Volocopter, Wingcopter/UPS, etc.
- Flying warehouses with delivery drones – Amazon airborne fulfilment centre (patented 2016)
- Passenger transport/air taxi – e.g. Vertical Aerospace, Lilium, Airbus, Boeing, Wisk, etc.
There is lots of investment and research into product engineering development & operational uses. But the larger drones will all require regulatory compliance and infrastructure changes broadly similar to current small transport aircraft requirements before they become widespread in the UK.
The quick wins with relatively fast ROI & H&S gains are the inventory control and warehouse & equipment inspection applications of drones.