Drone inventory management: the future of stock control?

04 May 2021

Drone inventory management might sound a bit like science fiction. But what’s certain is that, little by little, these devices are beginning to take off in the logistics sector, serving as support for certain tasks such as stock management

It’s unlikely that software management systems (WMSs) and radiofrequency scanners will be replaced in the day-to-day of storage facilities. However, warehouse drones could become a game changer when it comes to taking that dreaded annual inventory, which involves stopping all or part of the facility’s activity so that operators can scan one or all of the items. In this operation, drones could free workers from a tedious job and enable the warehouse to continue operating normally. 

In this post, we break down the main advantages that warehouse drones bring to logistics and explain how inventory management would be carried out with the help of this technology. 

Warehouse drones and logistics

Logistics is probably one of the sectors that could benefit most from the use of warehouse drones. The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pictured below is guided by a user by means of a remote control, although we’re seeing more and more computer-controlled models that follow preset routes autonomously.

The ability to travel quickly and safely has meant that warehouse drones are hailed as a tool for supporting the digital transformation taking place in Logistics 4.0. But what impact do these devices have on the supply chain

Major companies such as Google and Amazon are currently working with drone prototypes to deliver orders to customers. Another application that’s already being put into practice in certain warehouses is drone inventory management

Inventory refers to an ordered, detailed list of the stock the company stores. To manage this correctly, it’s essential to verify that this list matches the goods actually stored. Although the WMS keeps a digital, real-time inventory, from time to time, manual controls are done — mainly annual inventory — in the event that there’s an imbalance due to human error. 

The use of warehouse drones in these manual inventories could put an end to the major inconveniences they cause. Imagine a drone flying around the facility independently, scanning barcodes or RFID tags, then informing the WMS of the number of units for each SKU. Thus, inventory disparities could be detected automatically, without the need for workers to dedicate themselves entirely to this task.

Warehouse drones fly through storage aisles autonomously
Warehouse drones fly through storage aisles autonomously

Drone inventory management: how it’s done

There are two ways to control a warehouse drone. The first, and most common, is by using a remote control. The second (only for models that incorporate GPS) is by setting the flight path automatically. In that way, thanks to its sensors and indoor geolocation system, the drone moves inside the facility according to a preset flight plan and route.

Once in flight, the drone cameras capture the information on the tags of each unit load to control the stock. Tag reading can be done with barcodes or RFID tags. The RFID system has more enhanced features, as it allows warehouse drones to identify products from both sides of an aisle, from over 25 ft away and with channels of up to seven pallets deep, without the need to have direct contact with the tag. It should be noted that all these features depend on the type of drone, facility, unit load, and the position of the tag.

Integrating a warehouse drone with the WMS

The work involved in tracking and reading the labels of the products stored would be all for naught if the data weren’t transferred to a WMS for them to be transformed into information. The integration of a warehouse drone with the WMS is more or less the same as with any radiofrequency communication or RFID system or other automated element in a facility. 

For inventory management with a drone to be 100% effective, implementing a WMS is a must. Because of this synchronization, the logistics manager can detect stock imbalances the moment the labels are read.

With the information received by the drone, the WMS will have a more reliable snapshot of the actual stock in the facility. As a result, WMS operations — warehouse slotting, product traceability, etc. — will also be more accurate.

Warehouse drones collect all data related to inventory and send them to the WMS
Warehouse drones collect all data related to inventory and send them to the WMS

Advantages of drone inventory management

Using a warehouse drone as an auxiliary tool for stock control has considerable benefits, in terms of both logistics and cost:

  • Increased productivity: warehouse drones read barcode and RFID labels, the latter, from several feet away. Hence, they can control inventory simply by flying up and down the facility’s aisles. These drones can also easily access goods located in high-bay racks, which are out of operators’ direct line of sight.
  • Better stock control and reliability: warehouse drones do away with the need for workers to take inventory manually from time to time, which, besides, is susceptible to human error. 
  • Improved safety: operators will no longer have to deal with tedious and, at times, non-ergonomic tasks. In addition, these drones lead to less-trafficked working aisles, fostering safe movement of handling equipment. 
  • Reduced costs: expenditure deriving from annual or periodic inventories is higher than it seems: staff involved, work time, downtime, handling equipment wear and tear, etc. Warehouse drones optimize resources, and operators can focus on enhancing other logistics operations.

Let’s be clear: the use of a drone doesn’t mean you don’t have to implement a WMS or scan barcodes manually when receiving, storing, and dispatching goods. Nevertheless, it can be very helpful for automatically ensuring that there are no stock mismatches and, especially, that warehouse activity continues as usual while annual or periodic inventory is being taken.

Drawbacks of warehouse drones

This technology is relatively new, so work is being done to improve the features of drones in order to provide a better user experience and obtain better performance. These are some of their disadvantages:

  • Always-visible identification: the goods must be correctly labeled. This means the tag needs to be placed on the external side of the pallet and should be large enough for the drone to read it correctly. 
  • Interruption of other activities: it’s preferable to take inventory at a time with no activity in the warehouse (at night, on the weekend, etc.) to be able to maintain productivity in the facility and, above all, prevent possible accidents involving the drone.
  • High initial cost: some warehouse drones, especially those with more advanced features, are very expensive. It’s fair to say that, as drone technology progresses, supply will go up and costs will go down. 

Identification of the labels is, in all likelihood, the aspect with the most room for improvement and on which companies are working hardest to offer better performance.

Operators will no longer have to use manual radiofrequency scanners to manage inventory
Operators will no longer have to use manual radiofrequency scanners to manage inventory

Inventory management: present and future

Any warehouse operator or manager is aware of the effort and resources that go into carrying out proper stock control. The use of drones for serving this purpose opens up new possibilities. Their features and the way in which they are operated are improving every day, making them a promising companion for WMSs and radiofrequency terminals. 

Drone technology could make stock control easier, cheaper, quicker, and, especially, more efficient. If you rely on technology to digitize your processes, don’t hesitate to contact Interlake Mecalux. We’ll help you find the logistics solution that best fits your needs.