The emerging role for drones in the supply chain

Drones are finding their niche in the supply chain, says Matt Yearling. It just might not be where you expected to find them.

By ·

Five years is a lifetime in the world of technology, but maybe you remember how turned the supply chain world upside down in December 2013.

That’s when he dropped a bombshell on 60 Minutes, walked correspondent Charlie Rose and his production team “into a mystery room at the Amazon offices and revealed a secret R&D project: ‘Octocopter’ drones that will fly packages directly to your doorstep in 30 minutes.”

Faster than you can say “same day delivery,” drones were the buzz word du jour at supply chain conferences, much like RFID following the infamous Walmart mandate about a decade earlier.

Given the number of e-commerce deliveries every day in my neighborhood in a small town in New Hampshire, I sometimes imagined the sky blackened with Amazon drones, like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

And then? Well, at least for now, my packages still arrive the old-fashioned way from a UPS, USPS or FedEx driver.

Which isn’t to say that drones don’t have a role in the supply chain. Two years ago, in an article in SCMR author Nick Vyas outlined real-life applications for drones in the healthcare industry, and predicted other use cases such as pipeline inspections or deliveries of parts and supplies in hard to access areas.

He also noted that “, a provider of yard management systems, has deployed a solution that utilizes drones to identify the location of trailers, shipping containers, and other assets in hard to reach areas. Equipped to carry GPS, RFID, OCR, and barcode readers, the drones can fly overhead to quickly locate and identify assets that have been tagged in a yard or port.”

So, what is the state of drones in the supply chain today, nearly five years after the Bezos’ interview? To find out, I reached out to Matt Yearling, CEO of PINC, the yard management provider Vyas wrote about earlier. First, Yearling is bullish on the technology. In fact, he says that PINC was the first solution provider to get FAA certification to use drones in the supply chain.

But, the emerging use case – the one gaining traction at least for PINC – is not necessarily the application that drone enthusiasts first envisioned. While there are companies using or piloting the use of drones to track their trailers in a yard, inventory of new automobiles in a storage location or high value assets in remote sites, there are impediments to broad based adoption of drone technology in the yard.

“The impediment is the regulatory concern around air space,” Yearling says. A second impediment is that the solution still requires not just the technology, but a certified pilot to oversee the drone. So, where is the action today? For PINC, “the traction that we’re seeing is using our drones inside the four walls of the warehouse for inventory control,” Yearling says.

“Our customers are focused on improving inventory accuracy to achieve higher supply chain velocity. Tasks like taking inventory and cycle counting are still carried out by humans. You can train the robot to do the same thing, it’s more than 300 times faster than a human and you don’t have to change your infrastructure.”

The solution came about by happenstance. “Our focus has always been inventory at rest, and in the context of trailers, about 80% of the time, they’re unhooked in a fenced-in environment. Initially, a few customers, especially in automotive, asked us to think about elevating our platform, and that got us to thinking about drones that could fly over the top and understand where everything is located,” Yearling says. That resulted in applying PINC’s patented technology to FAA certified drones in early 2014.

Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2014, many senior executives from several large customers presented PINC with a different challenge. “They said: The problem you’re trying to solve in the yard is interesting, but most of our inventory is inside our big distribution centers,” Yearling recalls. He added that a good deal of that inventory is going to be located too high above the ground for an associate to get at without a reach truck or some other kind of elevated platform.

Could PINC adapt its outdoors solution to an indoors problem. And, if you think about it, there isn’t much difference between cartons stacked on a pallet than trailers at rest in a yard – or items in a bin – other than the size of items to be tracked and counted. It’s all inventory at rest. Since then, Yearling says a number of household name companies have either adopted the solution or are piloting it, but none are willing to be named publicly at this point.

What is the state of the technology? Today, the drone, or robot, flies autonomously in a gps-denied environment using advanced sensors. The company’s warehouse management system (WMS) feeds existing inventory information to the PINC application via integration. When the robot receives a task to count inventory – say the number of cartons on pallets in a storage bay – the software first creates the optimal path for the drone to travel based on mapping done previously.

The drone doesn’t need markers or lasers for guidance to navigate through warehouses. The robot is equipped with an optical system combined with computer vision and deep learning technologies. When it passes through an assigned location, which it knows by the X, Y and Z coordinates, it visually inspects inventory labels and takes photos of the inventory to be counted.

The digital images are processed in real time to generate a count, which is compared against the known count in the WMS system. Since the system manages by exception, after taking inventory, the application provides an exception report to the operator who can click on the exceptions, look at a photo to confirm a count and then, if needed, update the WMS.

“We believe you can trust the robot, but today, most customers using the solution prefer to see the exception before they update their WMS,” Yearling says. Down the road, Yearling expects conversations about using drones in transportation to continue, if for no other reason than the amount of spend on transportation. But that’s not an area of interest to PINC at this point. “Our heritage is inventory and that’s where we’re going to be laser focused,” he says.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

Subscribe to Logistics Management Magazine!

Subscribe today. It's FREE!
Get timely insider information that you can use to better manage your entire logistics operation.


Article Topics

Drones · Technology · All Topics
Latest Whitepaper
Six Steps to a Great Technology Stack
Amber Road’s new eBook, Six Steps to a Great Technology Stack, explains how your organization can leverage digital connectivity for multiple benefits.
Download Today!
From the March 2019 Logistics Management Magazine Issue
Shippers are starting to see the incredible advantage that can be gained through the strategic management of e-commerce—especially as logistics professionals move out of their silos and into the C-suite. Industry experts further contend that walls will continue to be torn down before this disruption reaches an advanced and fully evolved stage.
LM Viewpoint on E-commerce Logistics: Time to simplify
Six Warehouse Management Trends to Watch in 2019
View More From this Issue
Subscribe to Our Email Newsletter
Sign up today to receive our FREE, weekly newsletter!
Latest Webcast
Strategies to Overcome the Labor Shortage and Skills Gap in Distribution
Join logistics industry expert Robert O’Dwyer and technical consultant Shawn O’Brien as they discuss how top companies are developing strategies to do more with less, and identifying technology solutions that will enable managers to overcome their skills gaps. This webinar illustrates how top companies are developing strategies to do more with less and identifying technology solutions that will enable managers to overcome their skills gaps.
Register Today!
EDITORS' PICKS
Ember: Finding the perfect temperature
Inventor of the world’s first temperature-controlled mugs turns to a single third-party logistics...
2019 Rate Outlook: Pressure Builds
In 2019, the world economy will enter a third straight year of broad-based growth, but many...

2019 Transportation Management Systems (TMS) Market Update: Keeping pace with the times
The transportation management systems market is growing right along with the number of challenges...
The Logistics News that Shaped 2018
Every year at this time, group news editor Jeff Berman combs through the mountain of news that was...
Предлагаем вам со скидкой https://proffitness.com.ua по вашему желанию, недорого.
www.steroid.in.ua/products/mastever

new movies on demand