Amazon drone

Drones and logistics: how far have we really come?

At the end of 2016, Amazon finally delivered a package by drone for the first time after many years of research. An unmanned, GPS-controlled drone carried a package containing popcorn and a media player on a 13-minute journey to a customer who lived in a secluded spot in England.

So can we expect the same flying couriers delivering packages in our own country soon? According to a survey of the VIL (the innovation platform for the logistics sector in Flanders), this may take some time yet.

Delivering packages with drones: technology, legislation and public opinion

The most imaginative use of drones in logistics is that of automated parcels delivery. The benefits are easy to see: no need for drivers, environment-friendly, no traffic problems, and the ability to deliver to apartment terraces or hard-to-reach areas.

Furthermore, a drone is fairly easy to control as long as it is under the control of a pilot who is within the “line of sight”. But if we were to try an autonomous drone, such as that behind the Amazon story, it becomes a whole different story. The technology to avoid such obstacles as electricity poles or trees exists, but it is not yet advanced enough to deliver packages by drones on a large scale.

In addition, legislation in Belgium and the surrounding countries must be more accommodating. Currently, both in Belgium and the Netherlands, there are “no-fly” zones where drones are not allowed to fly, for example near military areas or airports. However, these zones are vast and mainly located around our large cities (Antwerp, Brussels, Amsterdam, etc.), which means any investment in drones is not currently an interesting proposition for retail companies.

Despite this legislation, it is estimated that around 400,000 drones will be flying around the European Union by 2050. But in addition to technology and legislation, public opinion must also be considered. The question is, are people are ready to see dozens of drones with built-in cameras flying above their homes?

How can drones be used in logistics?

In collaboration with the University of Leuven, VIL carried out a specialised project concerning drones in logistics. They worked with 11 companies to examine how drones can play a practical role in the logistics sector.

Stock-tacking using drones

First of all, drones can be used for stock-taking in hard-to-reach, external locations. For example, the steel company NHS has 175 cubic metres of steel spread over a 3-km quayside at the port of Antwerp. Previously, unloading required a written process to keep track of where the steel beams had been laid. In collaboration with the VIL, NHS initiated a business case to see if drones could be of any use when taking stock of all the steel.

In addition, there have been many research projects that have been carried out concerning stock-taking with drones in internal locations. Compared to the standard process in which warehouse employees can only check stock by using cherry-pickers, this work could be carried out much quicker and more efficiently with drones in the future. The physical stock-taking process could then be carried out at night without any human intervention so the warehouse does not suffer any downtime. In addition, there are also many types of additional applications that can be added to a drone; for example, a barcode or RFID scanner, a (thermal) camera, a sniffer for gas detection, an infrared camera for day and night use, a multi-spectral camera to detect plant health, etc.

However, as with the delivery of packages, the technology is not yet ready for autonomous drones to be flying around inside a warehouse. The GPS signals do not work well within a warehouse, while the turbulence generated between the shelving can cause difficulties. In addition, the battery inside a drone is often not long enough to check an entire row.

So what is a realistic stock-taking application with drones for logistics service providers today? Logistics service provider H. Essers is examining the use of drones as a kind of “video capturing tool”. An autonomous drone flies along the shelving in the warehouse and captures all the images. The inventory can either be monitored live, or using the recorded images (post-processing).

A drone as a security assistant

A second practical application is the use of drones for patrolling industrial sites or outdoor storage areas. For example, the company ICO have up to 2 million cars parked on their site. Currently, security is provided by fixed cameras and guards who only go out to a spot if there is an incident notification. Working with drones can result in increased and improved checks being carried out within a shorter period of time.

By equipping drones with heat sensor cameras, intruders can be observed much more easily. In the future, this may also be extended with facial recognition to identify individuals. Furthermore, working with drones is also safer because the security personnel are no longer at risk should they come into contact with the intruders.

Video: Amazon Testing Drone Delivery System