Drones are one of the hottest topics in tech right now. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, we’ve seen drones revolutionize markets such as the film and television industries. But recently we are also seeing drones’ use cases expand into the supply chain -- and not just for package delivery, drones are being used for many tasks within the warehouse ranging from cycle counting to material handling.
But do drones really have a future in the warehousing industry? Or is this just the latest headline to be overhyped by the media? Continue reading to learn more about real-world uses cases being piloted in warehouses today.
Probably the most discussed use case in the supply chain world right now is cycle counting. Cycle counting is typically a labor intensive and highly manual process, error prone in nature and disruptive to normal operation procedures. And counting inventory stored in high pallet locations are some of the most costly tasks in a warehouse. It is all too common that, instead of pulling a pallet down to accurately count all the cases, associates will simply look up at the rack to confirm a pallet (any pallet) is present in the location, and then mark it counted. What if that pallet is the wrong product? What if a case is missing from the top layer that is not visible from the floor?
UAVs can solve these challenges by overcoming the vertical challenges. Drones are able to move in all three dimensions, with the ability to hover directly in front of rack locations to scan barcodes and capture pictures of the product. Advanced algorithms are then used to interpret the photos and determine an exact case count for the location.
Not only does this save on time and labor costs, but it also avoids an additional forklift clogging an aisle. Drones are able to perform these tasks while the rest of the warehouse operation continues as normal. Furthermore, the pictures captured by the UAV can now be saved so there is unquestionable visual evidence the inventory count took place.
Automated material handling within warehouses is typically extremely expensive and rigid. While conveyor systems and ASRS’s are efficient once installed, they lack the ability to adapt to changing business demands. What happens if you need to utilize additional dock doors to cope with peak holiday demand? You are now stuck with multiple processes to load your trucks, one automated and one highly manual.
UAVs can solve these issues due to their adaptive and flexible nature. Drones are the opposite of conveyors, with the ability to update their routes within the warehouse immediately to meet new business requirements. This flexibility also allows for rapid experimentation and testing of new layouts and solutions. Before committing to costly and time consuming new material handling equipment installations, warehouses can use drones to test new procedures and measure the increase in throughput before investing in permanent, fixed solutions.
More than just the counting of inventory, UAVs are able to perform a wide variety of inventory auditing and inspection tasks. These can be performed with inventory still waiting in reserve racks, already picked and staged for loading, or anywhere in between. Additional process steps can be configured to add onto existing cycle counting tasks, or performed as separate actions altogether.
For example, if a cycle count is triggered due to a picker marking a case as damaged, traditionally a standard cycle count task would be issued, relying on the inventory control associate to find the damaged case in the location. With drones, additional procedural steps can be added for cycle counts specifically triggered due to damage, and the image processing algorithms can determine specifically which case on the pallet is damaged and issue a lock for just that case.
Furthermore, UAVs can be used to perform outbound quality audits on picked and staged inventory. Teams of drones can move across an outbound dock, ensuring the correct product and number of cases are staged for each order.
An often overlooked task within a warehouse is the inspection of vertical racking and the facility itself. A quick Google search shows racking collapses are all too common, which can be extremely dangerous and even deadly. These events are often caused by damage to racking which goes unnoticed by personnel.
Drones can address these issues by constantly roaming the warehouse looking for damage to the facility. Often interleaved between other tasks like cycle counting, damage monitoring can be a lifesaver to the hard-working associates in the warehouse. And by already investing in UAVs for inventory management, damage monitoring is an added benefit at no additional cost.
There are, of course, challenges with the currently available drone technology on the market. While UAVs have developed significantly over the last few years, the industry is still maturing, and there are problems still being addressed.
Drones do not inherently require a lot of power. However, the overall carrying capacity of drones is still somewhat limited (addressed in the Weight Capacity section below). Any additional weight devoted to larger batteries or gas tanks can limit the overall functionality of a drone. Even the latest drone technology still has battery life limited to only about an hour per charge, and despite hot-swapping battery pack capabilities, can still limit the effectiveness of the applications.
The inside of a warehouse is inherently a complex environment for an automated, unmanned vehicle. With a variety of obstacles a drone must be able to avoid, ranging from static conveyors to moving forklifts, navigating through a warehouse is still a challenge for many UAV technologies. Combinations of high precision cameras with technologies such as LiDAR are making huge strides in the navigability within indoor environments. However, the technology still needs continued development in this area.
Finally, the carrying capacity of existing UAVs can be limiting, especially when it comes to material handling operations. While some vendors have been able to achieve hundreds of pounds in carrying capacity, the majority of “heavy lift” drones are still limited to less than 80 pounds. Weight capacity is not an issue with inventory management tasks, which is part of the reason why cycle counting is one of the first major applications of the technology.
Hopefully this article has given you a window into an exciting new technology in the warehousing space. While UAVs still have some maturing to do, the industry is moving extremely fast, and with heavy investment in recent years, drones may soon become an integral part of any warehouse’s automation strategy.
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