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Drones in Distribution Centers: Has the Time Arrived?

While there are many companies working on drone deliveries, it might be relatively easier to deploy drones in the distribution centers and get some real return on investment (ROI). Although drone delivery seems very interesting, we are pretty far from that becoming a reality.

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 near by.

Meanwhile, a distribution center 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 center.

The first one is for basic transportation of boxes, the prime function of any distribution center.  Today, conveyor systems are installed to move boxes from one end to another. Unfortunately, these conveyor systems are not configurable. Once installed, the organization just need 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 leveled so any fork lifts, reach trucks or VNA trucks can be used.  Already, many changes do require these types of changes. Every DC revise 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 center 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 palletization and sorting
  4. The ability to load trucks/containers at the outbound dock

Of course, drones reduce the human element, in turn minimizing dependency on human labor. Also, managing drones will demand a very sophisticated Drone Control System (DCS) that can understand the layout of the distribution center, 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 centers 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 center, altitude can always be fixed to say 80' or 100' depending on the height of the tallest rack while moving boxes. 

What place do you believe drones will have in the distribution in the comments section below. Come back and read again tomorrow. I'll be looking at some of the challenges of drones for moving boxes as well as a second compelling scenario for using drones in the distribution center.

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