I’d be a little surprised if you haven’t yet heard about retail giant, Amazon and its plans for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, in distribution. Indeed, progress reports have been cropping up in the media regularly over the last year or so, detailing developments in what has become a convoluted story of trials and tribulations.
So is there really a place for drones in distribution? More to the point, where might their place be? Some pundits are predicting the big advantage of UAVs in the supply chain lies in their use indoors, rather than in sub-500-feet outdoor airspace.
Waiting for Your Drone Delivery? Don’t Hold Your Breath
There are a few hurdles to be overcome before drones in distribution become a widespread commercial reality, not least of them being the safety aspect and risk of conflict with general aviation users—in other words, pilots of private, military and commercial aircraft. Certainly in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is taking a very cautious approach to allowing commercial drones into its skies.
That’s not to say that the day won’t come. Technology has a way of surmounting all obstacles and becoming commercially viable and available: it just may not be for a while yet.
However, before that happens, we may just see the day when smaller drones fill the airspace of automated warehouse interiors. Some experts are predicting that the DC is the real drone domain in supply chain.
Some Possible Benefits of Drones in the DC
Drones in distribution centres could actually make a lot of sense, especially within warehouses that are already largely automated (meaning fewer people below the flight path). In these environments, drones could be very useful replacements for rigid, hard-to-configure conveyor systems. Drones could transport boxes around the DC and perform tasks such as palletisation, which automated robots have already proven to be adept at.
Imagine a warehouse that doesn’t need fixed palletisers, where picking routes can be reconfigured at will, simply by changing the programming of aerial drones. Pallets could be built whenever and wherever required, enabling warehouse utilization to be improved.
Drones in distribution centres offer the potential to increase flexibility and combine the speed of automated handling equipment with the scalability of a manual warehouse workforce.
Furthermore, these drones will operate under a roof space, safe from the ravages of nature. Outdoor drones suitable for commercial use have still to prove their ability to operate reliably in high winds, rain and snow.
There can be little doubt that drones will become a commercial reality across many industries. With huge corporations like Amazon and GE investing large sums in their development, the stage is surely set. In the supply chain however, perhaps we ought to be thinking more inside the box, than outside of it, when considering the future of UAV technology.
What Do You Think About Drones in Distribution?
What are your views on the future of drones in distribution? Can you see them overcoming the safety and regulatory hurdles to become reality? Do you think they have a place in place of four wheels for home delivery—or is there more space for them above the racking of a high bay warehouse? Please … Feel free to post your views or comments.
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