The use of flying helpers in buildings
The subject of drones and logistics is highly topical, due in no small part to the rumors that continue to surface concerning Amazon’s use of delivery robots for shipping goods or the various tests conducted with the DHL Parcelcopter. However, the focus tends to be on the transportation of goods rather than the potential uses of such technology in warehouses and production halls. All the same, drones are also very suitable for intralogistics purposes.
There is a commonly held view among logistics firms that drones are especially ideal for using outdoors. The aforementioned DHL and Amazon cases serve as good examples here. In actual fact, there are many good reasons to use them inside buildings as well. The agile handling qualities of drones enable them to operate in confined spaces, which is why they can be used just as well in rooms. The advantage is obvious: While there is busy traffic on the floors of warehouses and assembly halls, the air above them is mostly clear. As such, it stands to reason that they should be used for swift delivery of items to the production line or picking Station.
Uses in the high-bay warehouse
Thanks to the swift technological development of drones, they are now available in all sizes for a wide range of uses. This includes small drones, which, despite their slight dimensions, have enough load-bearing capacity to transport objects or be fitted with high-resolution cameras and scanning technology. Accordingly, drones are increasingly more suitable for use in interior spaces and warehouses, where they can easily navigate their way around sometimes narrow and tall rows of shelves.
Particularly in highly built systems, the drones reduce the risk of employees getting injured by working at heights. Helpful here is a man–machine collaboration in which the warehouse is divided into various zones: While the employees take care of tasks at floor-to-chest height, the drones operate on the higher shelves. However, they do not do this using GPS, which is only suitable for indoor use to a limited extend, but primarily with laser, ultrasound, and other sensors, which connect to the software control system via WLAN.
Urgently needed spare parts transported to the assembly line
Another area of focus for their use is the in-house transport of spare parts. Speed is especially important here in order to keep the idle time of the machines and production downtime to a minimum.
The swift and efficient transport of spare parts by drone within large factories helps to successfully master this challenge. This is particularly the case when the parts are distributed across different, dynamic storage locations. In situations where people or AGVs perhaps lose track or need long travel times, the intelligent transport systems fly directly to the required parts and take them via the fastest route to wherever they are needed.
The car manufacturer Audi is currently testing the use of drones at its site in Ingolstadt. The possibility of transporting parts to the assembly lines via automated drones is being tested there during ongoing production. The consideration was based on the fact that the parts can be delivered more quickly via the direct route through the air than with floor conveyors. In the production halls where the A3 and Q2 models are built, the drones now fly along a set test route at a speed of around eight kilometers per hour. At present, the load-bearing capacity of the drones is two kilograms. Larger loads are technically possible, but they directly affect the dimensions of the drones. In cramped halls in particular, however, it is important to keep the systems as small as possible.
The drones, which have four rotors that are enclosed for safety reasons, have thus far mastered their programmed routes with no problems. They are currently still steered manually by pilots, but the drones’ potential clearly lies in their automated use. Corresponding trials in Audi’s production halls have already been conducted. If trials such as these prove successful, drones could not only be supplying the production lines at Audi with urgently needed spare parts in the near future, but also carrying out general servicing and maintenance work or monitoring tasks with the aid of their cameras.
The advantages of drones in the warehouse using stocktaking as an example
The use of drones for other warehouse management tasks also offers advantages in terms of productivity and precision. Stocktaking is one good example of this. Stock is usually checked and counted
manually by employees. If the amount of time lost is to be minimized, however, this job must be done alongside the day-to-day business. This is often only possible in the form of overtime outside of normal working hours – with productivity-reducing factors such as the payment of overtime and the risk of increasing inaccuracy caused by fatigue among the staff members. For these reasons, among others, the US retail giant Walmart already performs stocktaking tasks using drones.
The stocktaking process can be automated with the aid of drones and therefore carried out at night or at the weekend, minimizing downtimes. During their flights, the drones record stock levels by camera and scanner, simultaneously check the inventory, and report the results directly to the stocktaking system. The employees normally charged with this task can devote their time to other, more demanding tasks. In addition, this constantly ensures that stock levels are permanently and precisely recorded throughout the entire year.
A system specially designed for stocktaking has been developed by Linde Material Handling in conjunction with the French automation expert Balyo. The so-called “Flybox” was presented at this year’s LogiMAT in Stuttgart and is set to considerably simplify the legally required stocktaking process, saving companies valuable time and money. The drone is around fifty centimeters in size and is fitted with both a camera and bar code scanner. It is designed to work completely automatically, making it possible to take the inventory outside of normal working hours.
Summary and Outlook
Drones are on the way up in the field of logistics; not just for the transport of goods across land, but also in the warehouse in the short to medium term. Yet like so many innovations, this trend also calls for certain requirements to be met: The flying machines are not manually controlled, but by means of high-performance software, which assigns the most efficient tasks and routes to the drones and makes sure that the small transporters do not collide with objects in the warehouse, each other, and especially People.
This requires a modern IT infrastructure and a fundamental willingness to invest in the innovative technology. As such, drones will tend to be of interest to companies with larger warehouse capacity, at least in the medium term. Here in particular, the processes are generally already ultra-modern and geared toward productivity with dynamic storage and retrieval systems, with scope for further optimization through the use of drones. In view of the high competitive pressure in this market environment, the extra efficiency achieved in this way can quickly prove the difference between success and failure.
One aim will be to enable drones to coordinate even better with one another and their human partners in future to achieve even more effective results in the field of intralogistics. After all, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be possible for the systems to develop their own swarm intelligence in the near future and – in a similar way to the example already set by AGVs in some warehouses and production halls – communicate autonomously with one another and allocate tasks in order to work through the jobs quickly and efficiently.