ChainMail | Inside Job

Warehouse drones are taking off and taking inventory

ChainMail | Inside Job

One of the supply chain trends of the year is growth in the commercial use of delivery drones. Need toothpaste or pancake batter quick? Walmart stores in several cities are ready to fly those purchases to your doorstep.

No surprise, then, that logistics and distribution companies are turning to drones to handle inventory management tasks inside warehouses. Actually, I am surprised because there’s been little drone news from this industry. That’s probably because warehousing companies don’t attract as much attention as Walmart or Amazon.

Here’s the buzz: Companies such as Gather AI, Verity, Corvus Robotics, Eyesee, and B Garage have developed drones that fly around inside large warehouses to assist with inventory tasks. These drones, powered by artificial intelligence, use cameras to read barcodes on pallets, package labels, expiration dates, and other information. The data is transmitted to a warehouse information system to provide an accurate count of all stored inventory.

Some of the benefits are pretty obvious. Warehouses in the era of e-commerce are enormous. They can encompass millions of square feet and carry hundreds of thousands of stock-keeping units (SKUs). Packages go out the door and some get returned so they need to be counted, too. Without drones, inventory management needs to be done by humans who may have to walk, climb, and scan to keep track of all those products. Mistakes are inevitable.

Cargo giant Maersk says it uses Verity drones to collect inventory data at warehouses. The drones fly to any height and use onboard, high-resolution cameras to absorb data. “The drones take photos of SKUs on pallets to identify inventory errors, such as missing or misplaced pallets,” Maersk said. “The results are cloud-based, shareable, and provide actionable warehouse data that offers better analytics for supply chain leaders.”

In an interview with The Robot Industry Podcast, Gather AI CEO Sankalp Arora said his company’s drones operate autonomously, flitting about, keeping track of their environment as they scan data. These are off-the-shelf drones outfitted with custom software. An inventory controller, who can manage up to three drones at a time, uses an iPad to select locations to be scanned.

“Since drones are 15x faster than doing manual scans, there’s obviously improved labor efficiency,” Arora said. “The most important part is you get visibility and you get data about your facility. Your facility goes from reactive to proactive.” He said inventory-counting responsibilities can be shortened from 90 days to several days, and lost inventory — stuff that was misplaced, mislabeled, or forgotten — can be found, potentially saving millions of dollars.

Drones are cool, but as Arora acknowledged, the important point is that they capture valuable data. “Who cares about drones?” he asked. “Just think of them as the flying thing that gets you that data.”

Read the complete Issue 48 of ChainMail here.

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