How Indoor Drones became Supply Chain Heroes
Markus Waibel, Verity Co-founder & COO
Over the past decade, outdoor drones have made quite a splash. Originally developed by the military as a way to remotely guide aerial missiles, they quickly found their way into the world of consumer electronics. Seemingly overnight, small quadcopters became the must-have gift for hobbyists of every age, and by 2019 there were 1.1 million private drones registered in the US alone.[i] The commercial use of drones has also expanded quickly to include aerial photography, monitoring climate change, pipeline inspections, and much more.
It was inevitable that drones would soon find their way into the realm of supply chain optimization. That leap appeared to happen when Amazon famously announced plans to use drones to deliver everything from books and tech gadgets to groceries in 2013. The buzz was instantaneous and tremendous. Suddenly everyone, everywhere was talking about the promise of drone-enabled last-mile delivery and how this exciting innovation would soon transform the supply chain.
But then the conversation stopped nearly as abruptly as it began. Eight years later, Amazon has yet to make a single commercial delivery via drone, while others have made some slow but steady progress. Alphabet’s Wing drone delivery program kicked off its drone delivery pilot in October 2019, with deliveries limited to a single Virginia town. Despite positive reviews from customers, the experiment has not been expanded. In May 2021, grocery giant Kroger announced plans to begin testing drone delivery within a matter of months, and Walmart is also queuing up its first test flights. Still, the evolution of commercial outdoor drone applications within the supply chain has been notably slow.
It’s no surprise. Much like the development of fully autonomous self-driving cars, the technology needed to enable safe, reliable autonomous drones is complex, and the challenges reach far beyond getting an object to take flight and perform a simple task.
Drones flying in outdoor spaces are subject to extensive regulations by the FAA (in the US), EASA (in the EU), and the CAA (in the UK). In every case, regulations have been slow to evolve—a fact that was exacerbated even further by the COVID pandemic. Weather poses another challenge. The US Postal Service has promised to deliver in “snow, rain, heat or gloom of night” since 1914, but flying drones can be difficult when the weather is anything but clear and calm. Then there is the challenge of the delivery itself, which can require drones to carry a heavy payload in addition to their own flight and navigational equipment. Kroger’s new drones can carry up to 5 pounds (2.25 kilos) of goods. Increasing that capacity to deliver something as basic as an 8-pound gallon of milk will require much larger, heavier, and noisier drones. Swiss Post and Matternet here in Zürich learned that lesson the hard way when they were forced to suspend drone deliveries because of noise pollution and safety issues.
Indoor drones are blissfully free from some of these challenges. Flying in a private space with a roof, indoor drones are not subject to airspace regulations. They don’t need to fly in “snow, rain, or heat” and operating in the “gloom of night” is actually a benefit, allowing businesses to save on the cost of lighting the warehouse since drones do their work at night or on weekends when the warehouse is closed. And because indoor drones typically carry cameras and sensors weighing less than an ounce (~28 grams) that are used to capture data rather than carry goods for delivery, they are lighter, faster, quieter, and safer—and they require less energy to operate.
That does not, however, make flying indoors any easier.
Autonomous indoor navigation is one major obstacle that required years of expert engineering to tackle effectively. GPS technology, which is readily available to anyone, anywhere, makes it relatively easy for outdoor drones to navigate from one place to another. Inside, however, GPS can’t provide the reliability or precision required for industrial processes—including Verity’s specialty: inventory tracking in the warehouse. A human pilot is a simple solution, but it comes at a cost: the need for a pilot washes out savings in labor costs (one of the key benefits of employing drones in the first place) and introduces room for error.
The better option: fully autonomous drones that use onboard sensors, combined with a sophisticated system that instructs the drones where to fly and what to do on each mission.
Verity delivered our first fully autonomous indoor drones in an environment where failure is not an option: flying over live audiences to create fantastical light shows for Cirque du Soleil, Metallica, and Céline Dion (to name just a few). Our drones took flight in the warehouse for the first time in 2016, and today they are helping our clients reap the benefits of automated inventory tracking. Inside the four walls of the warehouse, our integrated inventory system automates data gathering and supplies consistent, reliable insights that help improve operations. With the ability to navigate at centimeter-level accuracy and provide 3D views of warehouse inventory at any height, the drones can support a variety of critical tasks, including inventory tracking, rack inspection, safety checks, site monitoring, and more.
Building smart, safe, reliable drones in any environment requires engineering excellence. Outdoor drones have captured the imagination of consumers, and the vision of drone delivery may become a reality sooner rather than later. But autonomous indoor drones are already rising to become the supply chain heroes of today, delivering real value at the network’s most pivotal point: the warehouse.
Discover how the Verity inventory tracking system powered by autonomous indoor drones can enable your zero-error warehouse.