Drone-based Inventory Management

February 2015

Image Source: Fraunhofer IML

The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), a German research center, has presented its InventAIRy project, an innovative solution for the automatic location of products and the inventorying of warehouse stocks with the help of flying robots.

Salients

  • Autonomous Indoor and Outdoor Flight - The drones fly autonomously and independently, and perceive their environment dynamically. They have motion sensors and 3D cameras to screen and analyze the interior of the warehouse, as well as GPS with which to navigate in outdoor spaces.

  • Registry of Merchandise – The inventory identification is via optical reading of barcodes, or using radio frequency tags (RFID. The drones can also avoid obstacles and thus reach the most inaccessible places.

  • Data Transmitted in Real Time - The transmission of inventory data is performed in real time, without the need for cables. This allows the drones to adapt dynamically to changes that may occur in different areas of the warehouse and in the coordinates of the products it contains.

  • A Work in Progress - The project is currently under development. By mid-2015 it is expected that these robots will be able to carry out autonomous flights, detect obstacles and manoeuvre laterally to avoid collisions with shelving and other elements of their surroundings.

Insights

  • Towards a Continuous Inventory Model - Stocktaking is a task which must be carried out regularly to ensure the efficiency of the supply chain and to meet with regulatory requirements. Typical manual warehouse systems using barcodes or RFID tags necessitate, in different degrees, manual inspection, and are costly in time and labor. Especially in small and medium businesses, stocktaking may involve stopping production altogether or ceasing to provide service to customers while performing the operation, with the added costs that this entails. Proposals like InventAIRy are aimed at finding ways to practise continuous stocktaking, in which information on stocks is updated minute by minute and hour by hour, so that the system can automatically detect, and give advance notice of, any supply bottlenecks or restocking requirements which might arise.

  • Evolving Innovation in the Registration of Goods - The use of RFID tags in inventory management represents a major breakthrough with respect to barcodes in that line of sight is not required for reading, and various codes can be read “simultaneously”. The consequent cost reduction for companies can be significant. The global RFID market, which was estimated at around $19.3 billion in 2014, has shown an average annual growth rate of 18% in the last five years, according to the Global RFID Market to 2014 Forecast report by RNCOS E-Services. In the current system of warehouses equipped with RFID, the products carry an RFID chip and the antenna which reads them is fixed at entry or exit points, so that when products are moved, the antenna performs the identification. InventAIRy modifies this procedure by using mobile antennae located on the drone. In this way the inventory control is performed by the drone visiting the stock locations.

  • Versatility Tailor-made for SMEs - The InventAIRy project covers all aspects of the system, and has been designed by thinking specifically about creating a resource which can be made available to SMEs. Instead of using infrastructure facilities for local orientation such as, for example, those used by the Kiva robots of Amazon, InventAIRy has developed a solution based on the robustness of the drones, the use of sensors to detect the environment and the deployment of algorithms for the planning and coordination of routes. The robots use algorithms, ultrasound sensors, 3D cameras and laser scanners to make maps of the warehouses and adapt them if changes occur. The combination of these strategies offers SMEs a more economically affordable and flexible option, adapted to the type of storage they are using, which may be relatively unstructured or subject to frequent changes. Such an approach, based not only on the possibilities of the technology but also on the needs of potential customers, is essential if this new type of robotic solution is to succeed.

  • Autonomics for Industry 4.0 - InventAIRy is part of the program for Autonomic Industry 4.0 funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). This program aims to converge information and communication technologies with the most advanced industrial production, thereby exploiting the potential of innovation to accelerate the development of new products. With this and other measures the German government is marking its commitment to Industry 4.0, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, as a national project focuses on bringing about the Smart Factory, a new model of efficient and flexible manufacturing supported by cyber-physical systems and the Internet of Things (IoT). Industry 4.0 could be reality within the next decade.

  • Innovation Scouting Processes - The InventAIRy project has been chosen by Volkswagen AG and the Institute for Production Management (IPM) to participate in the 2015 Innovative Logistics Solutions Day to be held in Wolfsburg, Germany, in January. On this day, ten previously selected organizations will present their proposals at the premises of the company, and will have the opportunity to directly convince those responsible for decision-making in the area of logistics at Volkswagen of their efficacy. The day is the endpoint of the Innovation Scouting Process started eight months ago. It will bring together a range of companies selected for their profiles and for their presentations of proposals specifically geared for Volkswagen. This is yet another example of how big corporations can innovate beyond their own research laboratories through collaboration with start-ups and research centers.

  • Drones and Logistics: a Relationship that is Just Beginning - 2014 generated the first news about the use of drones in the area of distribution logistics, especially from Amazon, Google and others, with their projects for delivering orders by air. But while regulation and safety codes for the use of drones in the open air are not yet entirely formalized (the Federal Aviation Authority could complete this process in 2015), new applications for drones within warehouses are emerging. In retail warehouses that are not yet fully automated, it is estimated that almost 80% of worktime is devoted to picking and packaging and that employees can spend as much as 70% of their day walking the aisles between shelves. These are the circumstances which have stimulated the search for creative solutions, given that there is already adequate technology available for the use of aerial robots to detect and appraise situations and move independently to resolve them. Qimarox, a Dutch company, is already designing a system for final identification and palletizing of order lines by means of drones which could add efficiencies to this stage of the supply chain. When the technology is no longer a barrier, the human imagination is the only limit to what might be done.