Drones in Warehouses — When Will They Take Off?

In the News
January 10, 2017

Unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming increasingly popular for commercial use as well as recreational use.

Due to their popularity and assumed flexibility, supply chain businesses have begun to consider using drones in warehouses. In fact, a Frost and Sullivan report (download PDF) states that drones are one of the few radical technologies that industry participants will cautiously adopt over the next 15 years.

Even though warehouse and distribution facilities have begun looking for ways to incorporate drones into their operations to be more efficient, industry leaders have expressed concerns about how drones can be used.

In October 2016, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced a new advisory committee on autonomous vehicles. This committee’s mission is to develop recommendations for how this technology can transform the way we move people and goods on roads, railroads, and in airspace.

With drone deliveries — both within warehouses and to consumers — on the horizon, the question is, will UAVs really take off and become a new operational win for distribution? Or will they hit turbulence on their way to adoption and crash short of success?

Business Takeaways:

  • The supply chain industry is considering the use of aerial drones in warehouses to move parcels. While Amazon.com is looking at the last mile, Walmart is testing UAVs inside its facilities.
  • The FAA rules released last summer were seen as too strict by many observers, but the industry is lobbying to change them and is hoping for more drone testing.
  • For many order-fulfillment operations, proven ground-based robots may satisfy their efficiency needs better than still-developing UAVs.

Early adopters light the way

The testing of drones in warehouses has already begun and is being led by two retail and consumer-goods giants. Amazon.com Inc. launched its own drone program, Prime Air, to focus on the last mile and speed up its already fast delivery process.

With Prime Air, Amazon Prime members could receive packages in 30 minutes or less because of drones. The online retailer has stated that Prime Air has a great potential to enhance the services it already provides to millions of customers.

In addition, Amazon has claimed that its rapid airborne parcel delivery will increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system.

By contrast, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is testing the internal use of drones in warehouses. Walmart has tested image capture by drones in warehouses — up to 30 pictures per second — and can mark missing items in real time.

Walmart reported to Reuters that its drones can...

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