By Juliane Friedrich
Let's take a look ahead into the next decade. Traditional stationary retail has all but died out. Town centers have become home to showrooms in which people measure themselves with 3D scanners, put their products together individually on a tablet and buy them with a click. The weekly shop is done from the comfort of the sofa, or even by the fridge itself. And of course, no-one wants to wait more than an hour for delivery. But how can this be done? Drones play a crucial role - and in a place where you would not expect them...
Let's turn our attention not to the final stretch, but to the processes that come before it, in the warehouse. After all, not only will transport have to become much faster - the upstream processes do, too. We would even go one step further: These processes need to be automated. This will take drones that keep a perfectly coordinated logistics system running in the warehouse. A potential scenario:
We are on the outskirts of a major city, in one of the warehouses of what is currently Europe's largest online pharmacy. Pills Corporation is facing a challenge: Its network of branches now makes up only a small minority of its orders, with the majority of orders received online and needing to be ready for delivery the next day. The company even offers "same-hour delivery" within the local region. No easy task for picking and goods provision. To manage it, six months ago the company completely reorganized its warehouse. It already had 20,000 m² of storage space. Adding two further floors almost tripled the area.
Pills Corporation tested various concepts in advance before ultimately deciding on the picking drones. This technology has been in the spotlight at Pills Corporation since 2018 with the inventory drone concept. A logistics service provider in the vicinity used an inventory drone for the first time - accompanied by many excited press reports. This captured the stock of twice as many shelves in half the time. In contrast, Pills Corporation's previous bearing concept had to be completely restructured years later to cope with the increased use of drones. "Before, we had chaotic storage with two-meter shelving. The individual packages were either still in larger packaging units or were transferred into standard boxes in advance. Our pickers used VR goggles," says John Doe, the manager responsible for the Pills Corporation warehouse, describing the previous situation.
Start of the test phase – preparation in the warehouse
In order for the drones to be used, the shelving on the intended test area had to be dismantled. Plastic boxes were used instead. Arranged at ground level, they allow the drones to easily fly over the top. The outer packaging of the medicines turned out to be a problem, as the drones sometimes found it difficult or even impossible to grip them. This was another reason to choose standardized boxes, some of which were already in use. Individual packages were transferred loosely into the standardized boxes when they entered the warehouse. "We control item recognition centrally via our Pills Corporation cloud. Each package is scanned in 3D before being placed in the warehouse, so that we have a digital image that the drone can use to help it find the product," explains warehouse expert Doe. The advantage of this is that it enables the drones to clearly identify packages optically from all sides.
Items are placed in the warehouse by automated guided vehicles (AGV) that choose the boxes based on the available space. When choosing spaces, the AGV takes into account where there are already a lot of fast movers and chooses a less busy position where necessary. This "heatmapping" ensures that not too many drones are flying in one place and that the drones’ inventory flights are spread more evenly across the area. The AGV also picks up empty boxes in the area. At the moment, this still demands a lot of transport space. However, in the future a drone solution could be used for this, too.
Selecting and using the drones
Pills Corporation is testing a total of five drones, whose batteries are charged inductively via pads in their feet. The drone has a basket and two vacuum grippers to pick up the loads. Maintenance and servicing of the drones is controlled via the Pills Corporation cloud and conducted by the manufacturer as necessary.
As well as picking, the drones are also permanently in a kind of inventory mode as they fly over the warehouse. The cameras record which items are stored in which segment of the warehouse, creating a constantly up-to-date map of the warehouse, which they can also use for navigation. This is a necessary feature given the chaotic warehousing. All data is fed into the central Pills Corporation cloud and analyzed. The cloud then uses the data on incoming and outgoing goods and shipping to calculate the total stocks.
Picking by drone
When an order is received, the cloud puts it out to tender to the drones, which enter a kind of bidding process. The drone that best fits the criteria, such as availability, battery life and position, is chosen. It then compares the item ordered with the digital warehouse map and navigates to the relevant warehouse section. Using camera technology, it compares the product to the 3D scan and, if it matches, picks it up.
A successful two-month test period convinced Pills Corporation to roll out the new concept to the entire warehouse. The restructuring took just two months, including installation of the new warehouse levels. Six months later, John Doe is happy with the results. "Our picking is much faster now. Once the order is received, the products usually reach the outgoing goods area within just a few minutes for further processing by our staff. The drones fly at around 25 km/h - a speed that no human can achieve. And their error rate is 0 percent." The company has now acquired a further 15 drones in addition to the five used in the test phase.
Pills Corporation also benefits from maximum flexibility and scalability. No large or complex installations are needed, with hardware largely limited to drones and boxes. This negates the need for on-site maintenance and the costs it involves. Control and communication are performed via the Pills Corporation cloud, enabling the drones and AGV to work independently.
Pills Corporation remains a theoretical scenario, but it is not unrealistic, says Sascha Schmel, Managing Director of VDMA's Materials Handling and Intralogistics association. "The international competition to make use of drones in logistics is in full swing. New development or pilot projects are being announced almost every week. Although the legal hurdles are currently very tough and many projects are still in their infancy, drones can play an important role in intralogistics in the future." There are already some real-life applications in the inventory segment, so it is undoubtedly worth keeping an eye on drones and their commercial applications.