As Amazon and Google make headlines in recent months for major leaps ahead in their delivery drones, it could be that the era of drone delivery is finally coming. But drones have been doing more to get your online purchases shipped to your door than just acting as flying mailmen.
They’re also working inside the warehouses, too.
Drones in warehouses can carry payloads (particularly useful at heights), reach narrow storage areas, localize hard-to-find items, and send real-time data to improve warehouse operations, and make humans’ work easier.
Enterprise drone automation company FlytBase put together a white paper (PDF link) outlining how drones could work in warehouses (FlytBase builds drone fleet software, so they have some skin in the game here).
Their research found that replacing traditional warehouse operations with a drone could save massive amounts of time, space and money. Here are some of FlytBase’s estimates for how and where drones can save on warehouse efficiency:
- Inventory audits using drones: save more than 50% of worker time
- E-commerce click to ship times: can be reduced by up to 75%
- Inventory per square-foot: increase by as much as 50% since drones can navigate in tighter spaces
Another benefit of putting drones in warehouses: regulation (and potentially safety) is less of a predicament than it is for the alternative drone job you think of when it comes to drones and retail: package delivery. Drone package delivery has largely been held up because of regulation and policy (not technological) concerns.
The Federal Aviation Administration only regulates outdoor flights, which means drones have essentially free rein indoors. Whether or not to allow flights over people is up to the warehouse operator, and theoretically anyone the drone flies over would be involved in the operations anyway. Operators wouldn’t have to worry about air traffic control, as the drones theoretically also would be interacting with each other anyway. And the same holds through for other drone industry policy challenges like flying at night or drones flying beyond visual line of sight.
The challenges for drones in warehouses
That’s not to say that operating drones in warehouses don’t have any challenges; they just have different ones than outdoor drones.
Navigating indoors reliably with non GPS: Indoor flight likely means no GPS. Couple that with the fact that indoor environments may be more complicated than outdoor environments (an indoor area with human activity, high-value inventory and moving obstacles like forklifts is likely tougher to navigate in than a open field over crops), and drones need to be able to reliably, safely and repeatedly navigate indoors with no GPS.
Accurately locating and identifying specific objects: Computer vision is a growing trend as more technology, whether it’s self-driving cars or face identification on your phone requires it. And drones need to have smart computer vision too, not just to navigate environments, but to locate and identify specific aisles, racks, pallets, slots and items – despite markers (eg. barcodes) that are covered by dust, wrapped in plastic, damaged during transit, visible only at angles, or even missing.
Hardware must be sustainable: A drone that can only fly for 10 minutes might not turn out to be all that useful. Reliable hardware and batteries with long lives are imperative. That could also mean charging pads and docking stations in warehouses.
Software must be smart enough to create less work for humans, not more: Odds are, most warehouses will have multiply drones, not just one. That means drone fleets need to be coordinated by software, without having to rely on skilled, certified drone pilots if warehouse drones are to operate at scale. The software must also integrate with other existing warehouse workflows.
Amazon drone delivery may be a few years (or more) down the road in terms of reliably getting you your online purchase to your door in a few minutes, but drones are already working hard in the retail sector.