Adapting Drones for Modern Material Handling

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There is much discussion on the use of delivery drones, but how else could this technology be used for material handling? What are the challenges ahead?

Material handling drones graphic

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DRONES! When most people hear this word it causes a sense of hysteria. They automatically assume I am talking about a multi-million dollar war machine with rocket launchers.  In reality, the majority of consumer U.A.V.’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) are far less scary than their military counter-parts. The consumer U.A.V. industry is one of today’s fastest growing markets. Modern technology is enabling one of the greatest tech adaptions to society.

With every new technology, there is a certain level of acceptance. As that acceptance grows, oftentimes the new tech presents unanticipated applications, and to me, that is the most exciting part.

Companies like Amazon, Google, and Walmart have been testing ways to implement drones into our everyday lives with delivery services. The latest announcement from Amazon has ignited even more discussion on the feasibility and application of drones for material handling.

The idea is that if a customer lives close enough to a fulfillment center, they can receive small goods via drone within as little as 30 minutes. Sounds great right?  Faster, efficient, and more cost effective than traditional methods. In theory, drone applications for modern material handling can range anywhere from inventory tracking to palletizing, and delivery.

Although there are many opportunities for integrating drones into your warehouse or distribution center, there are also a few challenges and questions to consider.

Pros

  • Integrated Intelligent Technology – There are a number of systems put in place to achieve the safest and most stable flight. These systems include GPS, gyroscopes, WIFI, sonar, smartphone applications, etc. The systems are also modular so new ones can be added when needed. Have an oddly shaped package? No problem. Simply attach a new arm on the drone to adjust for change.
  • Return on Investment – A team of drones do not need sick days, health insurance, or even sleep. They can operate 24 hours a day 7 days a week. With enough drones, an operator can offset the charging times to always have a fleet flying while another fleet can charge. With the high cost of current drones, the return on investment can be easily made back by replacing tedious and repetitive tasks once the price point of the industry goes down.
  • Safety – Pedestrian safety is increased due to less fork truck traffic on the warehouse floor.  In addition, drones could handle all inventory located in high racking to reduce the amount of manual picking and putaway done by employees suspended from fork trucks.
  • Ease of Programming – Set the X, Y, and Z coordinates to accommodate for change of inventory and change of warehouse layout.

Cons

  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – The largest elephant in the room. Without going into too much lawyer talk, the FAA has missed its deadline to properly regulate drones, causing a “Wild West of Drones.” The minimal guidelines they sent out are mere suggestions since the FAA has yet to properly create and enforce rules and regulations of the industry. Another issue is the commercial exemption. One must possess a pilot’s license to fly for a business. I believe there needs to be a new drone license that allows operators to take a test similar (and more strict) to a driver’s license.
  • Start-up Cost – Consumer drones are not cheap. They can range anywhere from $500 to $15,000 and can be as expensive as $100,000+ for professional film making. While the industry continues to grow and more companies adapt, the price point will continue to go down. It’s simply a matter of waiting for the industry to grow. Which brings me into my next issue.
  • Technology Limitations – With every electronic device, the Achilles heel is the power source. Battery technology has significantly improved over the last few years, but it is still limited. My first drone was lucky to get 10 minutes of flight time out of one battery. I recently upgraded and now achieve around 30 minutes of flight time. Very impressive but still hard to justify if the customer lives further away from a fulfilment center.
  • Technology Limitations Part II – The carrying capacity of consumer drones will vary.  I tested a DJI Phantom 3 to carry a max of 2.5 pounds of payload. The overall structure will have to be scaled up to accommodate to heavier payload. Another possibility is to have a team of drones work together to perform tasks that require more strength.
  • Weather Conditions – Drones can only fly in low wind and non-rain conditions. The motors are usually exposed and can lead to failure if they get wet. While the technology has implemented GPS and sonar stabilization for windy conditions, the battery life will suffer due to constantly adjusting to harsh winds above 15 mph.

Questions to consider

  • Who is going to fly these drones? Or are they going to be completely autonomous?
  • Who is going to insure the drones?
  • What are other possible applications for modern material handling?
  • What happens when one gets shot down or stolen?
  • Where will this application be the most useful?
  • When will the technology be ready?
Kevin is a Marketing Specialist with Bastian Solutions based out of Indianapolis. He graduated from Eastern Illinois University with a background in graphic design. Kevin specializes in content creation for print and digital platforms that include multimedia design, web design, and aerial photography

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