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Inventory count made easier by drones

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

Keywords:inventory management? drone delivery? RFID tags? distribution centres? In Command Wearables?

While the role of drones in distribution centres is yet to be realised, the industry might see another advantage of employing drone delivery in inventory management. In fact, European research organisation Fraunhofer, through the InventAIRy project, is currently developing drones that can keep tabs on stocks.

Of course, a few technological hurdles need to be overcome for this idea to be really feasible. Today, the payload for a drone is limited. To increase the payload, drones need more motors and propellers, which would then increase the size of the drone significantly.

This size increase also hits battery efficiency. After installing this many propellers and battery, the flight time on the drone might only be 15 to 20 minutes with a payload of maximum 10 to 15 pounds. To keep the drones operating, there have to be recharging stations where the drones have to be sent every 15 minutes. Again, fast charging technology will help here, but that technology is not fully ready yet.

So this significantly reduces the feasibility of drone deployment, except in distribution centres that move small items. Electronic components might be one example as well as small electronics products, including smart watches or fitness trackers. Of course, all these are situated in the e-commerce customer order fulfilment scenarios.

RFID tags for inventory management solutions

The second area where drones offer a lot more opportunity and better bang for the buck is for inventory counting. There are two approaches to leveraging drones for inventory count.

The first approach is using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. In this scenario, each unit of every SKU would need an RFID tag in it and the locations that hold them (any type of location, such as pallet reserve, case reserve, case pick, active and others). The drone would take a flight path that covers all the locations, which would mean that the drone would have to fly at different altitudes to cover all levels of racking and then read the tags that are in that vicinity including the parent RFID tags associated with the locations.

Furthermore, the methodology followed for counting would need to be slightly different because of the use of RFID tags for counting. The distribution centre needs to be divided into zones, and the inventory needs to be associated to the zone and then compared on a weekly or daily basis at this zone level rather than counting at the bin level. This approach is slightly different compared with the most popular warehouse management systems being used today, which count the inventory at the bin or at location level.

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