Intelligent Inventory Drones: The Flying Robots Just Came Indoors

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We have seen endless applications for drones emerge during the past years and their operating areas currently spans everything from marine conservation to attempts of delivery services. However, until now they have mostly been applied by businesses operating outdoors. A vast business opportunity is now finally emerging for a certain type of indoor application as well. The intended area is warehouse inventorying.

For quite a while we have been able to follow Amazon’s earthbound robotic crusade. Robots move shelves, picks items and packages the ordered goods in a neatly fashion. It seems as if more than one startup has glanced upon this example for inspiration. This time however, the robots are not crawling on the ground.

For instance, the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics is working on an inventory management system that will fly around warehouses and report whether items are in stock or not. The task can either be performed by the drones by reading barcodes or by pinging RFID-tags attached to the packages. TechCrunch reports that the drones also map their environment automatically, so fortunately there is no need to install beacons or indoor GPS systems. Intelligent algorithms combined with 3D-cameras, lasers and ultrasonic sensors take care of the problem.

Even if modern warehouses have the shelves marked with barcodes, QR-codes and RFID-tags it has been a very tedious task for human personnel to climb up and down and scan the items or shelves. The optical and chip-compatible readers of the new drones get rid of this problem, and a whole warehouse can be inventoried in a fraction of the established timeframe.

The goal is to provide a solution where the responsible workers can inspect the inventory or search for an item with the help of a computer and a simple press of a button or two. This requires no more reliance on floor-workers, which makes the application very probable to contribute to what is called technological unemployment, unfortunately. The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics expect successful flights to be accomplished during this year.

According to IEEE Spectrum, drones are a good idea for inventory management for several reasons. First, they’ll be operating in a semi-structured (or entirely structured) environment. If they’re in a retail store, the environment is probably considered semi-structured, since humans can be kept out of the area while the robots do their work and the environment is generally static and well-defined. A warehouse might be a structured environment, since it can be completely restricted and mapped in advance with very little risk of change.

Additionally worth mentioning is that the very same idea as the one we have just gone thorugh is being pursued by a South African company called DroneScan. The founder discovered the huge amount of man-hours and heavy machinery needed for inventorying large warehouses, which stocks are changing daily. You can read a short interview with the CEO in this article from How We Made it in Africa.

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