3 Companies Successfully Using Drones in the Supply Chain

Tim Ingles
Thu, Mar 31, 2016
Wal-Mart uses drones to count inventory in warehouses.
Wal-Mart uses drones to count inventory in warehouses.

Using drones in supply chain logistics management operations is an exciting idea, but is it practical? Managers may think implementing remote-controlled flying robots to deliver goods and pick inventory in the warehouse may seem like science fiction, or is at the very least unfeasible for daily operations.

TechWorld recently featured over a dozen companies turning drones from future possibility to real-world business solution. Agriculture organizations use drones to supervise animals with a bird's eye view and crews working in dangerous environment - like oil fields - can perform hard-to-reach maintenance tasks with the flying equipment.

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Utilizing innovative technology takes careful planning and some creative thought. Here are three companies from the recent news employing clever tactics to make drone assets a viable part of the supply chain.

Amazon Stores Serve as Drone Airports

So far, it's been proven drones can carry inventory and deliver it to specified locations. Questions preventing full force implementation include: How far? How many drones can fly at once? How much can they carry? It seems unlikely a company can operate out of a single warehouse and run distribution solely through remote control flying vehicles. A drone supply chain probably needs multiple touch points.

Some industry experts were surprised when Amazon announced its plan to open hundreds of physical store locations, according to Computer World. The Amazon website often sits as the alternative to in-store shopping, but there are many suggested reasons for why the retailer decided to join the other side. Amazon's stores allow the business to appeal to new consumer segments, showcase innovative technology and create airports for their drone delivery fleets.

More physical locations mean more inventory warehouses so drones have shorter flight paths to deliver goods to businesses and individuals. The flying delivery equipment may become part of an extensive list of services offered by the new stores.

Wal-Mart Wants Local Drones

The idea of using drones close to home is appealing to many businesses. Material Handling and Logistics described how Wal-Mart tests drones indoors. Modern flying robots are so easy to control, it's not difficult to have them weave between aisles and make deliveries directly to doormats.

Wal-Mart currently expresses interest in deploying drones in its warehouse management, parking lots and making deliveries to customers who live close to stores. So far, the tests have involved flying the machines past inventory and utilizing automated data collection solutions to report location and movements. This allows the company to perform inventory counts in seconds, especially helpful for high places.

It's not just inventory management, Wal-Mart wants to deliver goods like groceries to local residents. These items are easy enough to carry and deliveries of basic supplies in regular intervals is a great candidate for automated equipment.

The Workhorse Group's Combined Truck and Drone Fleet

Not all plans for drone deployment involve launching the flying robots toward local customers. A new startup has found a way to expand the reach of drones by connecting them to traditional supply chain vehicles, according to Fast Company. The Workhorse Group is a truck manufacturer that's developing a drone system connected to an automobile.

A Workhorse truck can cover the same distance as most supply chain vehicles and then send a drone to finish the last leg of the route. The main goal is efficiency. If a driver has a number of deliveries close together and one outlier, he or she can hand deliver the convenient options and send the drone to service the difficult customer at the same time. It could also prove beneficial when trucks have to avoid dangerous roads or other obstacles like traffic.

Technology changes every day and businesses have to be ready to respond. If an organization is creative, however, it can use technological advances to rise above the competition.

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