By Xilling Gu
Amit Shah, the 23-year-old CEO and partner of Incipient Corp, came up with the concept of using drones to deal with inventory management when he was puzzling out the ways that technology could meet operational practice. He wanted to think of a use-case that was driven by demand rather than just having an “amazing idea.” His challenge was to find a way to create a concrete plan of how technology would work practically — given that the hardware was variable.
“It was and still is not easy, working on solving a problem that has not been solved well in the past. There is huge potential, but this also required us to be the pioneer — which is not always trouble-free. The software was the critical part, but given our deep expertise in IT consulting, we were able to line up and map out the best people for the job. That we were able to do this through our own tool chest was the biggest benefit.”
Drones or Unmanned Ariel Vehicles started to be implemented in U.S. military’s search and rescue operations as early as the1950s. In recent years, drones made a big entrance into the public sphere as aviation hobbyists and enthusiasts high-tech toys. With the increasing popularity in both commercial and private markets, drones were reported to be used by at least 50 countries in 2013; several of which now make their own brands including Iran, Israel and China.
In recent years however, civilian use of drones started to be curbed in a growing list of countries. In China, private drone owners are required to obtain a certificate and have limited fly zones, even in their own private properties. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration banned drones flying over tourist attractions and nuclear sites, and more crackdown regulations are underway. But the hazard of drones flying in public spaces doesn’t dampen the exploration of the technologies indoor prospective.
In August 2017, MIT Media Lab developed a new system that enables drones to track objects using wireless signals reflected from RFID (radio frequency identification) stickers. With that system, drones can locate and find objects in mega-warehouses that exceed possible efficiency level by manpower. Shah swiftly adopted the new tech and launched his own warehouse management software product called SKUVIEW. The young company provides a software solution to transform a traditional warehouse inventory tracking process into an automated procedure performed by drones. That significantly reduces labor hours and miscounts in manual warehouse management. As Shah explained, there are some simple steps before drone tracking can be deployed in a traditional warehouse. “First, the whole warehouse is bar-coded, meaning every pallet and aisle has a location barcode as well. Second, make sure all the barcodes are easily visible, thirdly, there should be enough space for the drone to fly in the facility.”
Once the drone software is integrated into the existing warehouse management system, the data collected from the tracking can be leveraged to provide more actionable steps to customers, such as more timely and precise demand planning and forecasting for inventory.
Warehouses are being super-sized as the customer demand for e-commerce continues rising at an exploding rate. The biggest facilities have doubled in the last 10 years to top one million square feet in the U.S. and have grown to similar sizes in Europe and China, according to Colliers International Group’s new report.