Drones permit stock-taking procedures in warehouses to be simplified considerably or even completely automated. The small, unmanned aircraft are ideal for carrying out visual inspections in high-bay warehouses.
The use of flying drones to deliver packages failed in real-life conditions due to insurmountable technical and legal hurdles. Although this will remain the case for a long time to come, it is now possible to apply the technology usefully in warehouses.
The main advantage of the quadrocopter is that, because they can hover in the air almost motionlessly, with the right camera technology on board it is very easy to open up new perspectives. They are electrically-powered and can therefore also be operated without problems in enclosed spaces.
However, their largest disadvantage also comes from the electric drive: they have a very limited battery life, simply because flying is an extremely energy-intensive way to move.
Inventory drones for high-bay warehouses
High-bay warehouses are ideal terrain for flying drones because their advantages can be exploited to the maximum. In the closely-packed warehouses they do not have to do much horizontal flying. Instead, they access the heights efficiently. As a “flying eye” equipped with a high-resolution camera and a barcode scanner, they save staff from having to use a lift truck to get up there themselves. The warehouse employee can comfortably control what he or she wishes to see from the warehouse floor.
DB Schenker is also already testing drones for high-bay warehouses. Equipped with a camera and barcode scanner, the quadrocopters check whether the pallets of products are at the correct location high up in the rack. But before this technology can really be put to use, there are several things to consider. This starts with simple things such as good light conditions for the cameras and goes right through to the legal department, which must get to grips with data protection.
Erik Wirsing, Head of Innovation Schenker AG
“This technology helps us with stock-taking and, thanks to barcode and video technology, also accelerates searches and so creates more transparency.”
Stock-taking will become even easier when drones are able to do it automatically, without needing a member of staff to act as a pilot. However, GPS reception is generally not available in warehouses, so other navigation networks will need to be created, for example, by using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and sensor data from ultrasonic or laser measurements. The drone itself is able to use its sensors to determine the altitude and this feeds into the navigation model.
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Once high-performance image processing software is added to autonomous flight capability, from a technical perspective there is nothing more to stop automated stock-taking or visual inspection.
A variety of systems are already available as prototypes. For example, Linde Material Handling intends to supplement its automated high-lift truck with an inventory drone: the “Flybox” travels in a box stowed on the self-driving high-lift truck. This saves it from having to do battery-sapping horizontal flights. Once it has arrived at the correct rack, it lifts off and records the stock levels. The Flybox is still a prototype. However, the prospects for the application of fully-automated inventory drones seem to be excellent.