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Supply Chain News: Supply Chain News: Drone Applications in Supply Chain Beyond Package Delivery


Commercial Drone Interest is Exploding, While Applications Inside and Outside the DC Are Here Now, before Package Delivery

Oct. 19, 2016
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Use of drones for package delivery has received a lot of attention ever since Jeff Bezos unveiled a video of an Amazon drone dropping off a package via drone on a 60 Minutes broadcast in 2012, but other applications in the supply chain are likely to emerge first.

That was a part of the message during a couple of drone related presentations at this week's MHI Annual Conference near Tucson, AZ.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

The process takes a fraction of the time the time required for workers to go out with hand held terminals to take inventory, Yearling said, and enables companies to take such inventories much more often, in some cases every night.

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On Monday, Jonathon Evans, CEO of Skyward, a provider of a software management platform for drones and the pilots that fly them he says is needed to "deploy drones at scale,” noted the huge surge in qualitied drone pilots in the US since the FAA changed its qualification rules in late August.

Before then, an operator had to be a licensed pilot for traditional aviation before he or she could become authorized for controlling a drone. Now, such a certification can be received after a week of classroom and hands on training. The ease of qualifying has already led to the certification of some 13,000 drone operators since the start of September.

Evans noted that virtually any job that involves a human going up on ladders, lifts and other equipment to inspect machinery, facilities or some other object is likely to soon move to drone-based systems.

As a proof point of how easy it is to do this, Skyward sent a drone up at the outdoor breakfast for the conference Monday morning, and during his presentation basically an hour later, Evans showed the audience crystal clear photo images of the top of the hotel and conference center, which he then showed could also be converted to a "elevation" view.

To date, receiving overhead visual imagery was expensive and obviously required use of expensive airplane and pilot(s). Now, the same and even better results can be achieved with a $3000 drone that can be acquired off the shelf from and other sources, "X," Skyward's CTO, later said during his part of the presentation. One of those drones was on display on the presentation stage, and was about 3-foot wide in total. A $1000 drone that is only about one foot wide is coming soon, X said.

X added that almost an unlimited number of sensors and imagers could be added to a drone, such as a thermal imager that could identify where heat is being lost in a manufacturing plant or distribution center. He said drone technology is advancing basically according to Moore's Law principles, which means it is proceeding very rapidly indeed.

Software also exists, depending on the application, to compare imagery from say the current point in time to some previous date, to identify changes or deterioration.

With resolutions are fine as half of an inch in some cases, inspections of damage or many other types of conditions can be performed easily, affordably, and safely, Evans said, noting the cell phone industry is rapidly moving from a human-based approach to tower inspection to one almost completely executed by drones.

However, perhaps the most promising short term applications for drones in logistics are related to distribution center operations, X said.

Those opportunities were discussed in more detail during another MHI session on Tuesday morning on disruptive supply chain technologies that included a presentation by Matt Yearling, CEO of PINC Systems, which is using drone technology for several DC applications.

Unlike Skyward, PINC didn't start with a focus on drone-based systems, but rather as a provider of yard management and other systems that it eventually found could benefit from drone technology.

Outside the DC, yard management is indeed one of those application, Yearling said, with drones equipped with RFID readers flying above a yard full of trailers equipped with active RFID tags on trailers.

Such a system isn't for everyone, Yearling said, but for those companies with large, densely packed trailers, the benefits can be substantial, though for now a human pilot is still required to fly the drone above the yard to take the trailer inventory by location.

Another promising application is for outdoor warehouses, sometimes referred to as "lay down yards," as might be used by some types of industrial distributors, major construction companies and others. Such storage areas are notoriously challenged in terms of maintaining inventory and location accuracy even when employees use mobile data terminals.

But again by using drones and RFID, inventory and location accuracy can be tremendously improved, Yearling notes, not only enhancing inventory management but also labor productivity by reducing the time needed to find items required for a customer or work order.

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Indoors, a slightly different type of drone can be used to take physical inventories of stored goods. Yearling noted that taking DC inventories is a very expensive and time consuming process, and which often never gets actually completed in many DCs. Others have a number of associates that work full time at taking physical inventories and/or cycle counts.

With drones, the aerial robots fly the aisles, and though there are options, it generally works like this: a drone flies to and identifies a storage location from its label, either in human readable through a form of optical character recognition or imaging if the location is labeled in bar code form. It then reads the pallet license plate from its bar code, recording and sending back the location and pallet ID information before moving to the next location. All of this is based on a detailed digital map of warehouse locations. Of course, the process might be enhanced if and when pallets have RFID tags on them,  with might be processed faster than becode images scans.

To avoid safety issues for now, the drones generally are flown during down time or periods of low activity, Yearling said, and again requires a pilot for each drone, but over time the drones are likely to have autonomous flying capabilities, as collision avoidance technology improves.

But the process takes a fraction of the time the time required for workers to go out with hand held terminals to take inventory, moving up and down tall stroage systms, Yearling said, and enables companies to take such inventories much more often, in some cases every night.

How the comparison of what the drone finds versus what the WMS or ERP system thinks is the inventory count and location, appears to vary depending on the situation. Yearling indicated the PINC system could do that comparison (obviously requiring it to be passed data from the WMS), or the data collected by the drone system could be sent to the WMS for that analysis, likely requiring some modification to the WMS, in SCDigest's view.

Yearling said that while for now the focus has primarily been on taking inventory for full pallets, in the future the system will be able to do the same thing for say full case pick from pallet locations. For that application, the system would be sent data on the pallet-build configuration and then use imagery analysis to "count" how many rows and/or columns of cases are on a given pallet to calculate the total. Presumably, someday the system might be able to count loose cases on the top, though this would present sometechnology and operational challenges, SCDigest believes.

Yearling made two other other interesting points. First, he noted companies really require that no changes be needed to their current product labeling systems before embracing a drone-based system. Second, Yearling said that with this drone approach, it really is possible to at a point in time have 100% inventory accuracy, something even the most disciplined facilities using the best WMS and mobile terminal technologies are not able to achieve.

Do you see promise in this indoor or outdoor drone-based applications? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.


Your Comments/Feedback

Steve Murray

Lead Auditor and Senior Analyst, Warehousing Education & Research Council (WERC)
Posted on: Oct, 20 2016
There is no doubt that the use of drones coupled with bar code visioning and RFID can significantly enhance the management of trailer yards and open yard storage.  Also internal storage counting for floor bays as well as racks if in connection with tags.  I am however holding my breath to see how the safety of drones within the DC works out. 



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