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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 few years, detailing developments in what has become a convoluted story of trial and tribulation.


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 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.


Update: The State of Warehouse Drone Technology in 2018

It’s always interesting to look back at an article after a couple of years to see how things have developed. In the case of warehouse drones, it seems my speculation was well-founded, but perhaps a little misplaced in terms of how drones might be used.

The big challenge in developing drones for picking is in finding a way for them to hold anything other than the lightest items securely (which is why transportation drones are currently limited largely to sub-5kg package and pizza delivery).

However, a number of drone-tech companies, following an interesting breakthrough made by MIT technologists, are now producing UAVs designed specifically for warehouse inventory management.


Count on Warehouse Drones to Save Costs

Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed a system comprising small drones that can fly around a warehouse or yard scanning inventory bar codes and RFID tags, greatly reducing the counting workload for humans in large distribution centres.


The RFID-reading drone can pinpoint and count tagged inventory stowed inside stand-trailers, making it invaluable for large distribution centres with outdoor goods-yards.


Meanwhile Walmart is testing similar drones, equipped with optical scanners, to count inventory in its gargantuan US warehouses, the smallest of which is the size of 17 football fields.

The Walmart UAVs, which fly completely autonomously, can each scan a volume of inventory in one hour that would otherwise require 50 humans—that’s a huge time and money saving, especially when multiplied across Walmart’s 150-plus warehouses in the United States.


What Do You Think About Drones in Distribution?

Since this article was originally posted, it seems that thinking inside the box is really paying off in the logistics sector, but what are your views on the future of drones in distribution?

Can you see UAVs overcoming safety and regulatory hurdles to become a viable method of goods distribution? Do you think they have a place alongside surface transportation 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.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2015. It has now been revamped and updated with more comprehensive and current information.


Contact Rob O'Byrne
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Rob O’Byrne
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