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Is it time to use drones in distribution centres?

Posted: 12 Mar 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Drone? distribution centre? Drone Control System?

Retail giants Alibaba and Amazon have been working on using drone deliveries for convenience and to get some real return on investment (ROI). While drone delivery sounds like a workable idea, one that is also favoured by four out of five customers per a poll by Walker Sands, it is still pretty far from becoming a trend in distribution centres.

Before delivery drones fill the skies, safety concerns need to be addressed. First, everyone needs to feel comfortable with the concept of an autonomous flying machine flying in the near vicinity. In addition, we need to ensure that drone will not do damage even in heavy wind, rain or other unexpected whether, or if another flying machine happens to fly nearby.

Meanwhile, a distribution centre is a perfect place for drone flight. Not only is it fully roofed, so no weather disruptions, but also offers a much more controlled and isolated environment. DC workers can reach the drone and address any exceptions that may occur immediately. Today, I see two areas that offer opportunity for drone deployment in a distribution centre.

Drone delivery

The first one is for basic transportation of boxes, the prime function of any distribution centre. Today, conveyor systems are installed to move boxes from one end to another. Unfortunately, these conveyor systems are not configurable. Once installed, the organisation just needs to work with what has been installed, since it costs time and money to reconfigure the layouts. Picture the work involved: metal platforms that hold the rollers have to be unscrewed and screwed back somewhere else and the floor of the DC needs to be perfectly levelled so any fork lifts, reach trucks or VNA trucks can be used.

Already, many changes do require these types of changes. Every DC revises its layouts and business processes; as new products create new SKUs, new types of shipping options become available, and the nature of orders change. Today, the average distribution centre reinvents itself in this way every five to seven years. This pace of change has only increased recently, and will only get faster and faster.

Deploying drones to move boxes offers several benefits:

  1. The ability to reconfigure the from and to points of transportation
  2. The ability to scale up transportation by deploying multiple drones
  3. The ability to perform palletisation and sorting
  4. The ability to load trucks/containers at the outbound dock

Of course, drones reduce the human element, in turn minimising dependency on human labour. Also, managing drones will demand a very sophisticated Drone Control System (DCS) that can understand the layout of the distribution centre, provide the ability to configure a flight path in an indoor scenario and manage multiple drones within the same building and so forth. However, putting in a DCS is not a big deal because similar type of control systems are used in distribution centres today. The only difference is this time the drone is flying in the air, which means the altitude needs to be taken into account. In a controlled scenario like a distribution centre, altitude can always be fixed to say 80' or 100' depending on the height of the tallest rack while moving boxes.

- Puga Sankara
??EBN/Principal
??Smart Gladiator





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