Sony tends to enter new sectors in a big way and its drone joint venture underscores the Japanese OEM giant's confidence that drones will become a blockbuster market. However, while drones are expected to become a hit commercially and eventually improve supply chain management practices, it is still too early to gauge the lasting impact drones will have.
Sony recently announced that a working drone prototype developed by Aerosense, a joint venture between Sony and Tokyo-based startup ZMP, is ready for commercial use. Sony expects the craft will generate sales for commercial applications of over $80 million by 2020.
“The applications of Sony's and other drones will be substantial, many of which we have not even thought of yet,” Dan Kara, research director, Robotics, for ABI Research told EBN.
Sony's joint venture drone, which weighs 22 lbs. and is 515mm × 515mm × 400mm in size, takes offs and lands vertically. It has a flight autonomy of more than two hours and can reach a maximum speed of 106 mph.
The craft can be programmed to fly a set course automatically or remote pilots can control the craft remotely from an Internet-connected PC. Set flight paths can be programmed to fly at scheduled times while flight status is monitored and recorded in real time.
A key feature that the drone offers is a camera that uploads video and photo images to cloud storage servers. The video and images can be processed by backend data services that Sony offers.
Inventory management offers one potential supply chain use for Sony's drone. The drone's camera, for example, can generate three-dimensional topographic map data from multiple photos of storage and warehouse locations. With the data, it is possible to monitor and check inventory status visually over a period of time. Visual spot checks of inventory levels with the drone can thus eliminate the need for a human worker to physically access the locations.
Because of the size of Sony's drone, it is particularly well suited for outside use. “Inventory is something that has to be managed, even if you are talking about acres and acres of land,” which represents one potential use of Sony's drone, Kara said.
Sony should also target a number of other applications to take advantage of a market that is expected to total $1.27 billion in sales for commercial drone applications by 2020, compared to sales of $15.22 million in 2014, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.
Government applications, including law enforcement; infrastructure monitoring, supply chain management, and research and development contributed to over 40% of market revenues in 2014, according to MarketsandMarkets. In addition to Sony, other drone players include Airware, Parrot, and 3D Robotics in the U.S.
Other potential applications for drones include their use in search-and-rescue missions, mapping, and agriculture, according to MarketsandMarkets.
However, the drone market remains in a nascent stage. Potential issues may arise that could limit their adoption for supply chain management and other applications. The Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S., for example, proposed rules earlier this year restricting drones use for outdoor applications. Among the measures, drones would not be allowed to fly at an altitude of more than 500 ft. Drones would also need to remain in eye contact with human operators at all times, according to the proposed rules. If passed, the restrictions would thus limit the use of drones from Sony and other OEMs for use in inventory management in outdoor environments.
Besides potential governmental regulations limiting their adoption, the larges-scale use of drones for supply chain management applications also remains largely untested. Sony's and other drones offer an exciting menu of possible uses, but it will ultimately be up to businesses to incorporate them into their supply chain management practices.
“While promising, everything is still up in the air how they will be used for supply chain and other applications. It still remains to be seen if the business mode will be viable,” Kara said. “Will drone suppliers remain in business even if they are able to sell a million of these things? And if they do to do that, will they still be able to sell a million of them the year after that?”
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