Interview with Erik Wirsing, the innovation leader at DB Schenker

“Our goal is completely autonomous flying inventory multicopters”

logistics aktuell interviewed Erik Wirsing, the global innovation leader at DB Schenker, on the experiences gained from tests with inventory drones and how he assesses the importance of this technology for the future.

logistik aktuell: Hello Mr. Wirsing, what do you expect from the current flight tests of the inventory multicopter in selected warehouses at DB Schenker?

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Erik Wirsing: Our goal in automated warehouse inventory through drones is to fully use autonomous flying inventory multicopters. The road ahead, however, is still a long one which is currently blocked mainly by the fact that there is still no suitable indoor navigation for drones on the market.

However, the tests have already shown that even the current state of the art contributes to a significant acceleration of the inventory. A drone pilot controls the multicopter by sight. Not only is this efficient, it also improves working conditions, which are even more important. If the drone is not just a technical gimmick, but really accelerates the inventory and, at the same time, makes the job of the employees more interesting, then that’s already a win.

What do the employees in the warehouse say about the inventory multicopters?

You have to be able to handle a drone. This requires a certain talent and, of course, even more training – especially in indoor use. We were amazed, how open-minded everybody was. Many have had experience with recreational drones in their spare time. Thus, we received really positive feedback. It’s just more fun and interesting, when you can rely on technical aids, especially in the case of the rather unpopular business of inventory.

But – just as we said – our goal is still to carry out the inventory completely automated, so that employees do not have to perform this recurring activity at all, not even as drone pilots. This should ideally be done in off-peak times when there are no employees in the warehouses.

Which technical questions were to be answered with the flight tests?

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The main purpose of the tests was to find out which design features the multicopters must have in order to be suitable for indoor use in the warehouse. In addition, we tested which camera technology they can be equipped with and whether the warehouses need to meet any structural requirements for their use. This is, for example, important in regards to lighting or dimensions of the individual shelf levels.

The drones, meaning the mere flight machine, we created in many parts ourselves by using a 3D printer in order to quickly and easily attach and test different sensors. The 3D printing process is ideally suited to also test weight effects. Each gram of weight reduction extends the flight time of the drone, which is particularly important given their currently very limited flight time. In addition, we were able to quickly and easily produce prototypes using 3D printing and really try out what the multicopters need to be used indoors on a regular basis – from flight characteristics to the optimal mountings for the inventory devices.

Erik Wirsing, Head of Innovation at DB Schenker

“Most of the drones we created ourselves using 3D printing.”

Which inventory devices do the multicopters have on board?

We have equipped our multicopter with a barcode scanner as well as a normal camera and video camera. But in the end, everything is conceivable as long as it can be attached to a small drone in order to get information about the stock levels. For example, an infrared camera could accurately measure temperatures at the storage locations. It must be decided in practice depending on the application, but there is certainly a whole set of useful applications – also with regards to different types of stock. After all, the drone itself is only the means of transport for this.

When do you expect the first autonomous drones performing inventory ready for the market?

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The question is not easy to answer. It depends on the developments of very different technologies. The autonomous indoor flight requires, in any case, an autonomous navigation capability, because the conventional GPS is not available indoors and would not be accurate enough. There are several approaches in this field, and several manufacturers are aiming for market maturity in 2018. In the case of autonomous flights, of course, you have to take account of occupational safety. The drones must fly outside of work hours to prevent accidents.

But that is not the only technology we need, because, in this case, the drone will only fly autonomously and record the inventory data. Subsequently, image processing must be done. These two technologies are not yet working together seamlessly. In addition, accurate policies must be considered for proper physical inventory. It does not work without trained staff and with only automated image processing. So, despite automation, we will still need employees for the inventory. However, they will only check the image files when the algorithms are overwhelmed or when additional qualitative criteria are involved. This inventory job can then be conveniently done from the computer, and no one has to climb any pallets to count and examine inventory.

Do you think autonomous inventory drones will, in the future, become the standard in inventory management?

Autonomous drones will be, at least, another helpful tool for inventory. Their biggest advantages are that they are quick, agile and easy to set up in the warehouse.

With all technical solutions, however, I generally advocate not losing sight of the real task. Ultimately, a drone is just a means of transport for other inventory technology. Depending on the application, this job could also be handled by other means of transport, for instance, by an indoor airship with a longer flight time or even a storage robot moving on a shelf, like the RackRacer from the Fraunhofer IML. The technical aids will have to be adapted to the respective warehouse, the goods and the warehouse management. Inventory drones will certainly play a role in the future, due to their specific technical advantages.

However, it is important not to get too carried away by the technical possibilities of one technology and to always keep the eyes open for new and alternative solutions by asking yourself what the actual job is that needs to be done. This must be the basic attitude if you want to stay innovative and break new ground.