Smart Inventory Management: Drones ready to take on your Warehouse

Driven by safety worries and cost and time benefits, the digital transformation of warehouses is underway across the world. The market for infrastructure inspections and industrial asset is ripe for the use of drone technology. Companies like Boeing, John Deere, and Amazon have millions of square feet of warehouses. It is impossible to get an up-to-date inventory of what is in the warehouse and what moved in & out using a traditional approach to inventory management.

The Problem

Warehouses of these companies have hundreds of aisles, each hundreds of meters with 5 or 6 levels. Traditionally, a forklift is driven to each aisle with a person standing on the fork that moves up and down. This is very risky and needs two people, making it very expensive, takes a lot of time, and won't be accurate as, by the time all the products in an aisle is scanned, some could be moved in or out. This old-school way of working is why there are many prevailing issues, which grow as the size of the inventory increases, and the above-mentioned methods stop working.

The Solution

We're fast getting to a time where drone-powered solutions are being seen as significant contributors to the movement, where the internet of things connects just about everything, revolutionizing industries with more cost-effective, safer, and heretofore impossible ways of collecting data. These open-space environments are where unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aka drones thrive. Drone maneuverability has made it possible to inspect areas that are difficult or dangerous for humans to access.

Thanks to the media, your perception of drones is probably based around the delivery of goods. However, in reality, inspection type roles are where the initial implementations of drone technology have typically been in. Working with utilities to allow inspections to be carried out remotely, inspecting wind farms and UAVs have even been used to monitor gas emitted for the fracking sites. Our work on the applications of drone technology is very much in keeping with this 'dull but useful' theme.

Experts believe that many firms carry excess inventory as they don't know what they have or where it's located and that over 85 percent of your company's inventory is stationary in the warehouse. Solving this issue will allow firms to reduce their inventory carrying expenses by billions of USD. And so tech firms are testing drones to carry sensors in a warehouse to take inventory more accurately and faster than human workers can manage. Those efforts are ready to transition to a production environment from testing.

The technology operates autonomously, avoiding any obstructions in its flight path and taking off and landing from the same location automatically. It surveys huge areas of densely packed assets to pinpoint the location of specific inventory or for inventory reconciliation.

Our 2 main design principles were not to introduce any additional infrastructure to make this work and not to change the way you do it. We introduce the drone to the environment and train it to the inventory.

The Benefits

Unlike their highly publicized home delivery cousins, Aerial Inventory Robots, drones designed for warehouse uses have been flying under the radar. Aerial inventory robots are ready to make their presence known now.

They provide added value by significantly reducing costs since drones can collect data and travel faster than any human. Their data can be stored in the cloud and uploaded to facility management software, which alerts technicians to maintenance problems, thereby increasing accountability and efficiency. That's not merely money saved in person-hours, it's also money saved by putting equipment back online sooner than later.

Drones are very economical to buy, maintain, and run. Scanning the inventory through drones removes humans from the equation and hence makes it very safe, fast, and accurate. The cost would be minimized because one drone can do the job of many humans.

Drones can be programmed to wake up at a time when the goods movement is very less and could follow a flight path to scan the inventory. They run on autopilot and will scan the programmed isles for location code and product code: bigger the warehouse, more the number of drones needed to complete the scan.

A fully stacked 100m long and 6 levels high aisle can be scanned on both sides in 10 minutes by a drone as opposed to 200 minutes by two most efficient humans (One driving the forklift and the other standing on it with a scanner). One drone could be programmed to scan isles 1, 2, and 3 while the second drone could scan isles 4, 5, and 6, and so on.

The Demerits

The slight downside of the drones, if you will, is the battery duration. These days drone batteries can last for over an hour, so each drone can scan 6 isles of that dimension. Batteries will only become better over time, so each drone can scan more number of aisles so the number of drones could be reduced as well. This will not only increase safety, reduce the cost, but it'll also provide accurate information.

But drones and other automated warehouse inventory systems come with the "garbage in, garbage out" issue. An automated system will only be able to draw your attention to the problem when inventory is misplaced, not prevent it or fix it.

And battery limitations do restrict the total duration of the flight and can become a hurdle for automated paths. Forced landing in bad areas where recovery of the drone is a challenge is a possibility due to loss of battery power in the middle of the flight.

Conclusion

In a way, drones are a good visual metaphor for the power and promise of IoT. Their efficiency, speed, and airborne maneuverability are physical reminders of what IoT networks are doing, invisibly, wirelessly, and over the air, every moment. Likewise, the value and disruption they bring to the industry are both significant and growing.

The advent of aerial robotic systems to undertake tasks at height has taken the need of doing dangerous activity away from human workers. Not only are the advantages clear from a workplace safety perspective, drones also provide a cost-effective and time-saving solution to such tasks. One of the issues with physical inventories is that it's not considered productive work, it's more administrative, and nobody really likes to do it. Drones can address some of the cost and labor issues warehouses face by taking away the need for your workers to conduct a physical inventory.

The business advantages from drones are immediate and significant given low infrastructure investments and capital expenditure, SaaS-based solutions for warehouse operations, and access to off-the-shelf drone hardware. API-based integration, combined with the cloud-connectivity of drones, makes it easy to adopt autonomous drone fleets for warehouse stakeholders into enterprise workflows.

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