Amazon is paving the way for using drones in logistics.
Earlier this year, Amazon was granted a patent for a delivery drone that can respond to human gestures—a thumbs up, a shout, or a waving arm can cause the drone to change its behavior.
The logistics giant has made Prime Air one of its top priorities, as part of a goal to develop a fleet that can deliver packages to customers within a half hour.
“Prime Air has great potential to enhance the services we already provide to millions of customers by providing rapid parcel delivery that will also increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system,” Amazon’s website states.
And drones are changing the logistics game for more than just deliveries.
Drones in logistics: How to get started
Drones are becoming accessible to smaller logistics operations worried about not just deliveries but running a warehouse, too, for example. Combined with good logistics software, drones can drastically improve your efficiency.
Drones are cheap these days. You can get a top-quality one for a few hundred bucks. There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t get in the drone game yourself—and you must if you want to stay competitive.
Within the next five years, you need to start using a drone in day-to-day operations or you will lose market share to competitors who are already shaving time and cost off their deliveries with drones.
Look at Walmart: They’ve been testing drones in their warehouses for a couple of years now because they know the technology is the future of warehouse management.
Adopting drones is a daunting challenge, to be sure. This is brand-new technology, and adopting it means totally changing how you run deliveries or your warehouse. So how do you even get started?
We’ve created a handy step-by-step checklist to help you incorporate drones into your business operations.
1. Figure out where drones will help you most
If you run a distribution center or warehouse, you’re an excellent candidate for experimenting with drones. Drones provide a more efficient alternative to conveyor systems for carrying items, moving boxes, and dealing with palletisation.
Take some time to analyze how your distribution center operates. What is the maximum size and weight of objects that need to be moved? How much time are employees spending checking inventory? How effective is your warehouse’s security system?
Drones may be helpful in moving objects, but only if they’re fairly light. You may be a bit limited when it comes to transporting objects, but there are other uses.
As mentioned above, Walmart is using drones with optical scanners to count inventory in warehouses, which could eliminate a task for your team. That’s no small matter—these drones can do the work of dozens of employees in the same amount of time.
Eyesee’s inventory scanning drone (Source)
And then there’s surveillance. Warehouses are filled with all sorts of good stuff that people want to steal. Drones provide the flexibility that stationary cameras don’t and can keep an eye on the whole warehouse floor at all times.
In which of these areas do you have the greatest need? Once you’ve figured that out, it’s time to move on to the next step.
2. Find the right drone
Now it’s time to choose a drone that is best suited to what you need to know.
Drones generally fall into three categories: transport, inventory, and surveillance.
Once again, drones that actually move goods are limited in how much weight they can carry, so if you need to move a crate weighing a ton, you’re out of luck.
However, if you need to move only smaller packages, there are a few options out there that are capable of accommodating you.
Airborne Drones offers a few options, including the FALCON, which can carry light loads for up to 50 minutes. Microdrones builds unmanned aircraft that are used today for carrying urgent medicines and other goods to hard-to-reach and remote areas. DHL has used the “Parcelcopter” in a test flight.
A Microdrones unmanned aerial vehicle (Source)
Drones that can check on inventory may be the most common application for drones in logistics.
PINC offers warehouse drones that help companies with a significant amount of inventory to improve the overall efficiency of their checking process. There’s also Hexagon Geosystems’ InventAIRy, an autonomous flying helicopter for both indoor and outdoor storage areas that is based on the Internet of Things. And then there’s Eyesee, a compact drone optimized for indoors.
Since surveillance drones are essentially just unmanned aircraft with a camera, you can acquire them for next to nothing.
3. Experiment on a small scale
Sometimes when you’re trying something new, it’s wise to imitate the big dogs.
UPS has experimented with drone delivery, and rather than just unleash a drone army in their warehouses, they started small and with a few partners who know what they’re doing.
UPS’s foundation arm teamed up with Zipline and Gavi Alliance to deliver temperature-sensitive vaccines and blood to remote areas. UPS was able to observe when Zipline tested the drones on some farmland near San Francisco.
The drones can carry only up to 3.3 pounds, so they can’t do enough heavy lifting to help UPS in their day-to-day operations. But though the company is currently using drones for charity, you can be sure the logistics giant has other ideas in mind as this technology continues to grow and mature.
UAV used in UPS/Gavi/Zipline partnership (Source)
Even if you think you’ll eventually need multiple drones, start off with one in a trial period.
During the trial, have your employees watch it closely for any problems—kind of like the person who sits in the driver’s seat of the new self-driving cars, ready to take over just in case. This way you can know if this drone will actually make your operation more efficient before you spend a lot of money on a fleet of them.
Don’t be afraid to ask the drone manufacturer, which likely also makes the software, to assist you with integration. You can negotiate onsite training and support while working out a deal with the supplier.
4. Fully implement drones into your operation
Once you’re confident that you’ve picked the right drone and you have all the pieces for implementation in place—documentation and training, for example—start making the technology a full part of your operation. Implement drones slowly so you can fix problems as they arise, and so the risk of chaos is lower.
Involve your employees in the whole process. Set up regular meetings as you integrate the technology so you can get a sense of how things are working on the ground.
Is this new drone creating problems in another area? Is there some workaround to address that? Is there some different way to deploy it to make life easier on your employees? Your workers should be your eyes and ears during the whole process.
Integrating drones in your logistics operation doesn’t have to be difficult. It just requires being willing to take the first step and adjusting along the way.
Learn more about how technology can help your logistics operation
Integrating new technology in a logistics operation is always tricky, because it involves making big changes to an operation you’ve worked hard to streamline. But in the case of drones, the potential payoff is too great to ignore.