The trend of Drones, otherwise known as ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs), refers to the development and utilization of variously shaped aircraft without a human pilot or crew on board. Enabled by embedded sensors and transceivers to navigate, drones are often controlled remotely by a human pilot, but advanced versions can fly autonomously beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) using software-controlled flight plans.
For almost a decade, drones have been seen as a potential new mode of delivery for logistics organizations. While holding great promise to provide quick, point-to-point shipping, this trend remains far from realization – regulations and technology, as well as economics, have limited drone delivery to only a few isolated operations around the world. However, as this primary use case progressively develops, other applicable areas along the supply chain have been identified, from security to dimensioning. Drone providers are continuously shaping and improving their products and services to meet these needs.
The trend of Drones has moderately high impact on logistics. As a new transport mode, UAVs can enable transportation lanes previously deemed too costly. Beyond transportation, they can help save time for logistics workers undertaking operational tasks. Still, there are only some use cases applicable today which is why the most impactful applications of this trend are beyond 5 years. Both technological advancement and regulatory development are required to bring drones to a standard fit for service at scale.
Companies across industries have ranked ‘saving time’ and ‘improving work safety’ as the 2 most important reasons for adopting drones.
Relevance to the Future of Logistics
- Mid & Last-Mile Delivery
- Dimensioning & Inspecting Large Assets
- Security & Surveillance
- Inventory Management
Delivery by drone is perhaps the most visible use case of this trend in the supply chain. So far, drones typically deliver high-value products like medication and blood. However, progressive technology developments have expanded their potential use in delivery logistics, helping alleviate pressure in the supply chain caused by more e-commerce orders, worsening traffic congestion in cities, and the growing truck driver shortage.
In both mid- and last-mile delivery, regulatory bodies around the world have cautiously permitted limited commercial drone operations. For instance, Bulgarian start-up Dronamics has developed a fixed-wing cargo drone capable of carrying a 350 kg (772 lb) payload, enabling same-day delivery over a distance up to 2,500 km (1,553 mi). In time for its first planned commercial operations, the company recently received an EU license to self-authorize flights, including BVLOS operations. In the US, American-based drone delivery service company Zipline received federal certification in 2022 to operate as a small air carrier, allowing it to expand existing e-commerce and pharmaceutical delivery operations. In addition, South African startup Cloudline was recently granted permission by the Kenyan government to test its autonomous blimp-like airships to deliver 100 kg (220 lb) payloads carbon-free to less accessible regions.
Overall, as land-based supply chains strain further and as governments recognize the potential benefits of drone technology in the face of macroforces, we here at DHL anticipate increased UAV use as a delivery mode within the next decade.
Whether for an oddly shaped, oversized piece of industrial equipment or the roof of a large warehouse, logistics organizations usually utilize a human crew to measure asset dimensions and identify inconsistencies and points of damage. Often, these routine processes can take many hours, as mismeasuring or missing a fracture can lead to costly consequences. Additionally, these tasks sometimes involve safety risks as workers may need to climb heights and walk on an uneven surface to properly measure or inspect an asset.
Drones with cameras, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) capabilities, or other sensing technology have demonstrated the ability to accurately perform these tasks, saving workers’ time and exposure to risky environments. Dutch start-up Mainblades provides an inspection service for airplanes, using drones to identify paint quality, lightning damage, and other blemishes and discrepancies and creating inspection reports faster than the 2-3 aircraft engineers that would usually be required to perform the same task. Meanwhile, FairFleet utilizes drones to measure large assets and shipments in facility yards, with accuracy to within a few centimeters.
Logistics facilities from ports to warehouse yards often cover large areas, making it difficult for security personnel to assess on-site damage and detect perimeter intrusion. A subset of drone providers focuses on this use case to help logistics organizations maintain the security and integrity of their property.
Nightingale Security, for example, offers a drone security service with multiple autonomous functions. Scheduled patrols of facility areas at different altitudes with varying hover durations, and camera directions can be pre-programmed at suitable times and on different days. If human or vehicle intruders are detected in any of the areas, the drone sends alerts to security personnel for further analysis. Furthermore, if an alarm is triggered by, say, a warehouse perimeter breach, the system automatically dispatches a drone to the local area and begins a live-stream video. If an emergency such as a fire starts, security teams can manually take control of the drone to pilot and properly monitor events.
As different types of cameras, from night vision to thermal imaging and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled devices, are put to use in security drones, these can help the security personnel of logistics organizations cover more ground in less time. Using its own in-house solution in South America, DHL has succeeded in reducing the time needed for patrolling from several hours to a mere 20 minutes.
Currently, many logistics organizations rely on human personnel to check inventory in facilities, particularly shelves for pallets. As shipments enter, rotate, and leave the warehouse, workers have to assess and confirm stock counts and vacancy rates on shelves. While several technologies aim to automate this process, drones are seen as a viable solution for what can be an expensive and time-consuming activity.
Instead of having dozens of workers scanning codes and recording placements, drones can quickly perform the same tasks without needing large warehouse vehicles like aerial work platforms to examine the higher shelves. Whole fleets of drones can operate autonomously, with only one worker needed to manage and assess flagged circumstances. Furthermore, as completing an inventory no longer requires a large workforce, companies can check stock more frequently, increasing warehouse management system (WMS) accuracy and further optimizing facility operations.
While the trend of Drones has taken longer to materialize than many initially anticipated, technology development has enabled some logistics use cases. Regulations have shifted the landscape to favor drone operations on private property; for example, security and inventory management use cases. More permissive legislation has recently enabled limited public-facing drone operations, particularly in mid- and last-mile deliveries. Overall, we here at DHL see drones as one part of the future of logistics and anticipate greater adoption in selected operational areas once the drone business case becomes more favorable.
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