Deploying autonomous drones for fast, frequent cycle counts at IAG Cargo’s Madrid facility
Thousands of man hours – that is the time that IAG Cargo staff has to spend, each year, on counting inventory at their air cargo hubs in the UK, Spain and Ireland. This is expensive, time consuming and sometimes inaccurate – not to mention impractical if the inventory counts have to be done daily, or even weekly.
Digital Transformation of Warehouses
As part of its innovation and digital transformation drive, IAG Cargo sought to adopt automation for inventory counts. At IAG Cargo, inventory is ‘always moving’ – more so with the global adoption of e-commerce, same-day delivery and acceleration of the entire supply chain. Thus, counting inventory at higher and higher frequencies is key to world-class operations and customer satisfaction.
Adopting any automation technology requires a careful analysis of its costs, benefits, potential risks, impact on business processes, sustainability and scalability. While evaluating the feasibility of inventory drones, IAG Cargo had to factor in the potential cost savings, impact on employee job satisfaction, likely improvements in safety – as well as the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve by proactively adopting the newest warehouse automation technologies and deploying them at scale.
Drones, not RFID, for Inventory Scans
IAG Cargo did evaluate RFID as an option to automate counts of items stored in rack-pallet configuration, but realized that not only would this require expensive infrastructure and readers to be installed across all hubs, but would also force the company to put labels on every piece of freight – a near impossibility given the millions of pieces processed at its hubs every year! Drones, on the other hand, stood out as an ideal automation technology for the inventory count use-case at such cargo hubs – given their use of the 3D space, degree of autonomy, ability to scan existing barcodes as-is, and recent advances in intelligent automation software that leverages such drones for creating business value.
The Madrid hub was chosen to pilot autonomous drones, and to serve as the pioneer in adoption of aerial inventory counts at the company. With dozens of racks of inventory that (ideally) needs to be counted daily, the hub will greatly benefit from barcode scans that can be done in a fraction of the time it would take a person to do.
As Carly Morris, Head of Innovation at IAG Cargo observed – “We worked closely with FlytBase to pilot their aerial inventory solution, FlytWare, at our Madrid air cargo facility. We expect FlytWare to help increase efficiency and frequency of inventory checks, as well as improve the accuracy of our data. FlytWare, with its combination of cost-effective hardware and intelligent automation software, is proving to be a promising solution for automated inventory scans. FlytWare’s autonomous charging capabilities mean no manual intervention with the drone is required, while its dashboard is quite intuitive for planning, executing & monitoring missions. Reliability, scalability and ease-of-use were the key considerations in our decision to trial FlytWare – we look forward to seeing a production-ready solution in the near future.”
Dashboard for Inventory Data
Equally crucial was the user interface and user experience of inventory automation – the operators at IAG Cargo hubs should not only feel comfortable working with unmanned aerial vehicles but also understand the business value created by aerial scans. For seamless integration of drones into inventory operations, the drone solution should be designed such that it can be adopted with minimal training and changes to existing SOPs and business processes.
It was important to IAG Cargo that manual inventory processes be replaced by truly autonomous drones, not something that would still require human intervention. Thus, not only were the drones required to fly autonomously and scan barcodes automatically, but the precise landing/takeoff, rapid battery charging, data integration into warehouse management systems and remote operations management — all should be potentially automated, for a truly scalable solution.
Success Factors for Inventory Drones
After testing some drone solutions, IAG Cargo realised the complexity of the task from an automation point of view, and the importance of three success factors:
- Use of reliable, off-the-shelf, cost-effective hardware,
- Robustness, scalability and ease of use of the software, and
- Operational and cultural fit between IAG Cargo and the drone solution provider
This led IAG Cargo to FlytBase, an enterprise drone software company whose mission is to help businesses automate and scale drone operations. With a hardware-agnostic platform that features edge intelligence, cloud connectivity and APIs, FlytBase is uniquely positioned to leverage cost-effective drones, at scale, for indoor applications such as counting inventory in warehouses where GPS connectivity is poor, people and equipment are moving around, and drones need to navigate around tall racks and in very narrow aisles.
Fully Autonomous Drone Solution for Inventory
The autonomous solution FlytWare for warehouses, DCs, cargo hubs and other inventory-heavy facilities features not only precision landing and obstacle avoidance, but also an operator-friendly dashboard which requires minimal training. With the cloud connected option built into the solution, FlytWare can potentially be used at each hub – as well as at corporate headquarters – to plan, execute, monitor, repeat and audit inventory counting missions.
While the inventory drone PoC focused on technology validation, and the pilot focused on business validation, the true measure of success of drones deployed at a production scale will be the improved accuracy of inventory checks, the increased speed and frequency of stock-taking, the savings in time & effort by minimizing the manual cycle counts, the boost in worker safety, and the eventual impact in revenue from better operating metrics at each of the IAG Cargo hubs.
Deploying Drones in Production at Air Cargo Facilities
As an industry leader in technology adoption, IAG Cargo understands the proof-of-concept to pilot to production journey involved in deploying drones at air cargo facilities. The opportunity to work closely with the technology provider and influence the development and refinement of the drone solution, is a demonstration of the thought leadership that the company brings to such automation engagements. In fact, it’s highly encouraging that cargo companies across the world are rapidly implementing digital and automation technologies for saving time, effort & costs – and for improving worker safety, productivity and business outcomes.
Needless to say, a wide variety of stakeholders must see the business value of drone adoption, ranging from the corporate innovation, R&D and technology teams to the hub inventory managers, business change specialists, and even the inventory auditors and financial controllers. In production, drone solutions for inventory management must prove that they can generate the appropriate return-on-investment for the company, with reasonable payback periods, minimal maintenance & support issues, and the ability to align the capital investment with IAG Cargo’s overall business priorities.
With the trial of the FlytWare solution well under way, IAG Cargo is able to understand the benefits, pitfalls and future applicability of autonomous drone technology.