The unfortunate circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent social distancing precautions have pushed organizations to contact-less collaboration and use of technology to bridge gaps.
This could result in a harder look at the advantages Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV/Drone) technologies provide, including accessibility, delivery, monitoring, broadcast, and surveillance operations. Human tasks needing inspection and information transmission could leverage camera drones to visualize physical space and communicate desired information. Delivery drones with payload drop mechanisms could replace human delivery of supplies, even reaching inaccessible areas. In addition, drones fitted with infrared cameras can be used for environment health and safety inspection.
These capabilities could resonate with many as economical solutions for the problems imposed by the current pandemic and make way for an increased interest in relevant use cases for supply chain problems.
Autonomous drones with AI: The opportunities in supply chain management
Autonomous drones combined with AI can support activities related to maintenance, surveillance, physical inspection, and transport pertaining to supply chain management, spanning across a multitude of use cases:
- Hi-Tech Manufacturing: Drones could support quick movement and availability of tools needed in manufacturing process and potentially play an even more active role in unaided robotic manufacturing and inspection processes as well.
- Inventory Management/Distribution: Walmart has filed patent for proprietary use of drones to manage in-store inventory and distribution. Drones can be used for physical inventory counting and reconciliations, and can complement Industry 4.0 initiatives to gain better visibility of inventory movement and space utilization as well as to visualize and analyze people and goods movement for continuous improvement of operations.
- Logistics/Last Mile Delivery: At the reMAR conference in Las Vegas in 2019, Amazon unveiled Prime Air Drone Design, which cuts human travel effort in the supply chain and supports sustainability by aiming to achieve 50% of all Amazon shipments with net zero carbon by 2030. While drones may be considered for physical delivery of goods, combined with AR technologies, they could potentially also help truck drivers locate goods within their own trucks and assist in sorting packages for delivery. The unmanned automatic transport of material from one location to another could also be leveraged in picking, packing and put-away processes in warehouse and distribution centers.
- Repair/Support: Drones complemented with AR/VR devices could enhance the process of visualizing problems and providing service and repair guidance. Wipro’s Looking Glass IoT platform has built service assist capabilities using AR and drone delivery to facilitate inspection of faulty parts along with voice and video based guidance.
What is holding back large-scale adoption of drones?
The CAGRs reported by industry for drone usage between 2019 and 2025 is at a minimum 40.7% to a maximum of 66.8%. There is hardly any doubt that the adoption of the technology is on the rise. But, is the world as prepared for drones as we think it is? The limitations imposed by the COVID-19 situation are proving to be a business case for the drone industry. There is quick development across geographical regions as far as the regulations on drones’ usage is concerned. For instance, in India SpiceXpress recently got permission to conduct drone trials for delivery of medical supplies, essentials and e-commerce products.
Companies that are trying to make a case in the space are evidently starting from lesser regulated markets and geographies. These initial business opportunities are more of a technology showcase for them. Once the technology demonstration is done well, gradual movement to real business will happen.
Companies need a considerable amount of deployment expertise, for e.g. the flight plan of drones, and communication with air-traffic management systems. One of the current asks in the industry which remains more or less unanswered is that of creating operating systems for drones which are interoperable with those of other brands or the legacy systems.
Along with the discussed merits of a UAV, there are also many security threats that a UAV poses. UAVs have been used to drop bombs in the past, and can be great security threats to places like nuclear power plants. Today, drones the size of a fist are possible. Small and medium sized UAVs are being used for suicide attacks by terrorist groups.
The areas in which drones were finding application in the pre-COVID-19 era were limited, such as medical supplies delivery, blood sample collection etc.
Drones are being advocated for low population density areas, and they have battery and technological constraints. Hence, the flying range for drones is limited, unless a widespread infrastructure for landing, take off and battery swapping of drones are built. Their small size poses an upper limit on their carrying capacity as well.
The rising interest in drones
Big technology players are focusing on drones as enablers for various industry applications, and improving the technology behind them, including their weight, flight durations, range of vision, and edge compute capacity. For instance, Apple has been using drones for map creation. The semiconductor giant Intel is known to organize aerial shows with perfect synchronization in movement of drones. The partnership between DJI and Microsoft to strengthen AI in drones is another clear testament to the promise of the drone technology space.
The road ahead
In Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Drones and Mobile Robots (2019), the UAV sector is still 5-10 years away from reaching the “plateau of productivity”. Perhaps, the current COVID-19 situation would push industries to have a relook at autonomous drones in a more positive light, with increased urgency to adopt the power of drones to automate and optimize their supply chains. This would provide the impetus needed for the drone industry, in turn, to hasten the evolution of the technology as needed and work through the current limitations.