The concept of the unmanned vehicle is not new and has been used by the army since the Second World War. Progress in flight control technology, carbon-free engines and the low cost of the various components together with the on-board modules: Wifi, camera, GPS, vision sensors, etc., have made the technology available to most technology enthusiasts, including giant corporations. While serving in the military, I had the privilege of launching a project to use quadcopter for immediate battlefield surveillance. Needless to say, by 2008, this technology was in its infancy for commercial purposes or to support scarce production. Flight control technology was evolving, the miniature size of the on-board integrated CPU had just appeared on the market, flight simulators were few and far between and, of course, funds were scarce. We developed a prototype using bamboos as propellers to avoid RADAR detection and reduce EM signature.
After only twelve years of advance, it is rising as one of the most vibrant technological products of the market. Whether it’s collecting samples for laboratory tests from the most remote location in Fete (a remote village in the Ivory Coast) to deliver luxury goods in Manhattan or Madrid, or advertising the use of protective masks by citizens in Wuhan,
or planting trees;
The use of drones is limited only by the imagination.
In this article we list the challenges faced by warehouses for real-time inventory, the current state of technology, including prototype development, our objectives and the approach to address the challenges. You can view our POC here.
The challenges facing warehouses:
- Warehouses that use barcodes, do occasional inventory and accounting due to cost and time sharing.
- Barcode inventory validation and verification requires highly qualified staff.
- Visibility of assets or goods has a time delay due to tracking latency time (some of the advanced warehouses mitigated this delay through the integration of scanning and real-time loading).
- The use of active RF ID is not cost-effective for low value goods.
- Passive RF ID tags can generate limited power, therefore you need a powerful RF ID reader.
- Packages/goods are stacked in two or three layers, which requires human intervention to allow the barcode reader to read the barcodes.
- Goods in open air warehouses are randomly dispersed over a large area, which adds difficulties to perform the barcode inventory.
- Some of the warehouses have poor visibility, which affects the quality of the image.
Current technological state:
The main challenges for unmanned drones to be used in indoor and outdoor warehouses are power, navigation and flight range. Some attempts to address these challenges are:
- By using tethered drones, we can have continuous power and data connectivity. But the strap has a range limitation (not suitable for outdoor inventory), the drone must have a minimum weight-lifting capacity which denotes its larger size and is not suitable for comfortable operation inside the stores for two reasons: tethering and GPS (which is inaccurate inside the indoor stores). Most of these drones are customised, which means a higher cost and the tethering system also has a cost. Some of the companies offering these services are Elistair, Alltechuav, Hoverfly, Lifeline.
- Some of the companies offering this product are still in the R&D phase, where the drone can be recharged while it is closing or we can call it wireless in-flight charging:
- This opens up a new era in drone technology where we can have multiple on-route charging stations for drones as we have gas/fuel/electricity charging stations for cars. This can be used in the open air warehouse inventory as long as the cost is affordable.
- There are also drone docking stations where you can dock, load and fly again; these stations are useful for the outdoor warehouse inventory and can be integrated with the inventory management solution:
- For inland navigation, we can use beacons that must be fixed in different places in the warehouse and also on the drones, which makes it possible to locate and control the flight route.
- Researchers at MIT have adopted a solution for indoor drones where the drones carry a repeater and RF identification tag and are therefore able to scan passive RF identifications and determine the location of the drones within a few centimetres; this is still being tested:
We set the following objectives based on the challenges faced by the warehouses and the current state of drone technology:
- Our solution should allow for real-time on-demand warehouse barcode inventory by drones if there is a passage for a human to walk down the corridor with poor visibility.
- Our solution must allow for real-time on-demand warehouse inventory of open-air storage using barcodes or RF tags.
- Our solution must be low cost but highly effective and attractive.
We are using Ryze and DJI drones to achieve the objectives mentioned above. We have developed our own algorithm to identify the precise location of the drone in the indoor warehouses without using third party beacons or GPS; through which we can plan an exploration route and positions. As the drone scans the barcodes, a JSON / XML file is created and loaded using the customer’s CRM / ERP API. We use drone swarms to perform a faster scanning task. For outdoor warehouse inventory we use DJI drones with our own application.