Aerial Accounting

There is a new aerial option for performing inventory management—a solution that’s gaining traction is autonomous drones.

By Nick Fortuna

When it comes to inventory management, aerial involvement has long been part of the process. Placing someone 30 feet up in the air to stretch out and scan a barcode on a hard-to-reach pallet or box has been a reality for many. However, these “aerial” inventory counts are not only a potential safety risk, this monotonous, time-consuming task can tie up manpower, as well.

Luckily, there is another aerial option for performing inventory management—a solution that’s expected to gain traction in the next few years: autonomous drones. They promise to perform counts more quickly, more often, more accurately and more cheaply. The technology has improved drastically in just the past few years, according to industry experts, making autonomous drones a viable option for a variety of facilities.

“When we first looked at drones three or four years ago, they were far from being production ready, but our evaluation in the last six to 12 months has found that they’ve come significantly further along,” said Lee Weisenberger, managing director of IT for Michigan-based Universal Logistics Holdings Inc., which provides customized transportation and logistics solutions.

“This is not futuristic; it’s not pie in the sky. This will actually work for customers if it’s in the right environment, and I think over the next 24 to 36 months, you’re going to see the environments where it will work expand.”

Vendors stepping forward

A number of vendors—including MHI member FlytBase Inc. and MHI member PINC Solutions—are now offering drone solutions that can perform indoors, without the benefit of GPS. Using proprietary, cloud-based applications, the drones collect and analyze inventory data and integrate it within a warehouse management system. Discrepancies between the drones’ data and the warehouse’s inventory records are flagged onscreen, and warehouse operators can then address inaccuracies.

If a warehouse management system (WMS) lists a pallet position as being empty when it isn’t, for example, a drone performing a cycle count will discover that there is indeed a pallet there and will read the label to identify the products placed upon it. An operator of a large warehouse or distribution center might finally be able to locate merchandise that was written off long ago.

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