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Supply Chain News: Walmart plans to Use Drones and Imaging to Take Physical Inventories in its DCs


Could be Live in Walmart DCs in 6 to 9 Months, Executive Says

June 6, 2016
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Walmart last week demonstrated for the media new drone-based technology for taking physical inventories in its DCs that it says could be deployed in the next 6-9 months.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

The drones could take a complete physical inventory of the building in just one day, versus a month or so using traditional process involve handheld wireless RF terminals and bar code scanning.

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Over the last couple of years, there has been news about technology vendors looking to use drones to capture inventory levels, but as far as we can tell always in conjunction with RFID.

For example, a company called ADASA announced a system in 2014 in which drones are outfitted with RFID readers and a number of antennas for retail applications. At various times, a drone flies about the store, hopefully reading every product with an RFID tag on the shelves or hangers, providing a complete snapshot of what products are where.

More recently, a vendor named vendor called PINC Solutions has been promoting a drone-based yard management solution, in which trailers have RFID tags and the drones an RFID reader, flying around a few times a day to see if everything is where it's supposed to be, updating the YMS with any changes from the past trailer count.

It 2015, PINC also said it was testing a related application with one retailer for cycle counting DC inventory using tagged pallets.

The company's web site says it is working with third-party logistics company Kenco on the use of drones with its YMS installed at some Kenco sites, but it appears the conversations are just exploratory at this point.

Then just a few weeks ago, SCDigest published an article on the use of drones and RFID to take physical inventories at the outside warehouse of AGE Steel in the United Arab Emirates, which started using RFID drones in 2015 to locate pipes, coils, hot-rolled bars, and plates across a nearly 1 million square foot storage area. (See Will Drone Based RFID Readers ever Gain Traction?)

But the Walmart approach is the first we have seen that instead combines drones with imaging technology
, though others have had the same idea.

For example, The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics in Germany is also been working on the concept. The Institute calls the project InventAIRy, with a goal to create "flying inventory assistants" to replace people in terms of taking inventory inside a distribution center.

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"The autonomous flying robot will soon be capable of independent navigation and inventory administration," the Institute says.

Under its concept, the drones then track what specific inventory is where using either RFID or optical systems.


The Walmart demonstration was at a distribution center in its headquarters town of Bentonville, AR, as a drone moved up and down storage aisles, taking 30 images per second. None of the articles from news sources that were at the demo, such as the New York Times and Reuters, did a very good job of explaining how this technology works, but it appears that Walmart is using video analytics of some kind to identify what inventory is in what locations storage locations and it what quantities.

Shekar Natarajan, the vice president of last mile and emerging science at Walmart, told reporters the drones could take a complete physical inventory of the building in just one day, versus a month or so using traditional process involve handheld wireless RF terminals and bar code scanning.

In addition to updating the physical inventory, Walmart said that data will drive faster replenishment of pick locations that are out of inventory.

"We are still in early phases of testing and understanding how drones can be better used in different types of business functions," Natarajan added. He also said the camera and technology on top of the drones were custom-built for the retailer.

The current regulations for drones for outdoor applications, such as parcel delivery, are daunting, in the US at least, but those obstacles are much lower for indoor deployment in a more controlled environment.

What do you think of this drone/imaging technology for taking physical inventories? A winning approach or not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


Your Comments/Feedback

J Gonzalez

Operations Supervisor , Legacy SCS
Posted on: Jun, 12 2016
Excellent idea. This is a great application of drone Tech for warehousing. Drones don't get fatigue and video footage is a great reference point for discrepancy review. Very exciting but definitely a threat to traditional human inventory teams and auditors.



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