Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are revolutionizing a wide range of industries. But despite high profile instances like the military, the adoption rate is still in the infancy in many areas. This situation is rapidly changing, and a prime example is the innovative use of drones in the warehouse and supply chain logistics.
Estimates indicate that the warehouse drone-based solutions market will grow to $29 billion by 2027 at an annual growth rate of 20%. Autonomous drone-based systems provide the perfect focal point for all the latest technologies from LiDAR to machine learning to converge and provide cost-effective, scalable, and customizable solutions to transform the supply chain industry soon.
These technologies help optimize inventory management and supply chain logistics. While inventory management is the most promising use of drones in warehouse management, they can be used for optimizing the logistics workflow and even for inspection and surveillance within the warehouse.
The need for drones
The rise of e-commerce over the last two decades has resulted in enormously large warehouses around the world. Inventory management in such large warehouses is time and resource-intensive. Studies indicate that warehousing comprises 30% of all the logistical costs. Adding to that, as much as 90% of the inventory of a company will be stationary in warehouses. There are over 800,000 large warehouses in the United States alone. These figures will increase at a considerable rate as the e-commerce industry grows exponentially. Fully autonomous solutions with drones at the center may be the necessary eventuality. In addition to smart inventory management, drones can provide financial and safety benefits.
Drone usage in warehouses
Aviation drones or delivery drones are valued for their aerial capabilities. Their ability to fly, hover, and reach difficult locations with ease makes them valuable in a warehouse environment. But the true potential of warehouse drones is the value they provide by acting as a platform that adds mobility to a host of other technologies - like RFID scanners, sensors, AI, and machine learning. They can also be remotely piloted or be autonomous, navigating through pre-determined paths within the warehouses with minimal human intervention
Manual inventory management requires a staff member to physically scan every label within the warehouse. This procedure is a very resource-intensive and slow process. Some estimates indicate that drones can scan RFID tags 50 times faster than their human counterparts, substantially increasing efficiency. A key example was the 2017 drone experiment done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where they tested drone technology using RFID tagged items. Their drones successfully read the RFIDs of inventory items from meters away with an average error of only 19 centimeters. More recent drones are increasing this accuracy. So, it is safe to predict that future warehouse drones will be more accurate and more efficient, reducing the need for manual scanning.
San Francisco based startup named Ware uses Skydio drones for warehouse management. These drones follow a pre-programmed route and periodically scan the QR codes and bar codes of inventory stacked in pallet racks. This information is processed by their machine learning algorithm and sent to their cloud server to regularly update the inventory information. When not in use, the drones will settle in a predetermined nesting place to recharge their battery.
With the large-scale adoption of technologies like 5G and improvement in AI and machine learning, remote drone operations with improved camera and sensor technology will transform warehouse drones into complete autonomous warehouse management tools. Such drones can ensure perimeter security, detect spillage, leaks, damages, and corrosion, do surveillance, and more.
The company PINC has developed an autonomous inventory solution that integrates several of these technologies like LiDAR, deep learning, etc. Their PINC Air solution uses autonomous drones for indoor and outdoor inventory management. This technology is one of the world's first FAA-certified use of drones in supply chain logistics. Flytware is another autonomous warehouse drone startup. Their drones can automatically navigate complex warehouse layouts without the help of a GPS.
Limitations and alternatives
Warehouses around the world have diverse structural complexities, geographical locations, and a variety of inventory items. So, drones sometimes face visibility and navigation problems within warehouses. Improvements in computer vision integrated with neural networks could solve these visibility problems in drones of the future.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by the autonomous drone-based warehouse management is the age-old "garbage in, garbage out" problem. If the item is not labeled correctly, or if the inventory is misplaced, the reading will be wrong. Currently, drones can identify such problems, but they cannot fix them. Intra-logistics drones can be the solution here.
Such drones can transport inventory items from factories to warehouses or from one location in the warehouse to another. But intra-logistics face significant limitations in terms of the drone's payload capacity, gripping the inventory items (items come in all sizes and shapes), and navigation. But intra-logistics solutions have started to emerge. German companies like ZF and Thyssenkrupp have successfully tested outdoor intralogistics drones. Several indoor intra-logistics models are also being experimented with around the world.
Warehouses use different inventory management solutions. Any innovation in drone-based technology should work within these limitations and should be scalable. Drones should be able to integrate with existing warehouse management systems using simple API based integrations. Such adaptability will help existing enterprise workflows integrate drone-based technology into their warehouse management.
Alternatives to drones have also been suggested to overcome some of these issues. One such system is a fixed sensor system designed by the company Cloudleaf. Their solution includes a mesh of sensors located throughout the warehouse that can collect the data in real-time. But the evolution of drones with onboard computing, efficient algorithms, and a whole host of sensors can be scalable and cost-effective down the line.
Despite the challenges, the benefits that drone warehouse solutions provide far outweigh the limitations. The flexibility in implementation, low-cost infrastructure helps companies to improve margin, reduce labour cost, and more importantly improve customer service by bettering fulfillment metrics, fewer stock-outs, and shorter shutdowns.