Mention drones and often the first image that comes to mind is the military, in terms of surveillance or attack. This is understandable in light of recent history, but as with many technologies that have their roots in military applications, drones are likely to have a broader commercial impact, sooner than later.
This development first reached public consciousness on CBS’ popular 60 Minutes, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos predicted that automated, GPS-directed, delivery drones could be dropping off (or hopefully placing)goods weighing up to five pounds (more than 80 percent of Amazon’s business) on doorsteps within 30 minutes of an online order, in just four to five years’ time. Designed todrive down logistics costs and help maintain margins, the service will be called “Prime Air” and use unmanned flying devices known as “Octocopters” that have a 10-mile reach from one of the company’s delivery hubs. Bezos acknowledged it may seem like science fiction, but said in fact it is not.
Indeed, it isn’t. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal notes that DHL will be using a drone to deliver medication to a German island in the North Sea, marking the first routine drone delivery to customers and another step in the rapid advancement of the technology.
DHL said … that as part of a month-long feasibility project, it will start using unmanned aircraft this week to carry medicine from the harbor town of Norddeich, Germany, to the small island of Juist. Each day—depending on weather—the drone will fly autonomously on a preprogrammed seven-and-a-half-mile route, the first routine missions in Europe in which a drone will operate beyond the pilot’s eyesight.
Elsewhere, the Netherlands-based material handling company Qimarox sees this development moving in another direction: indoors. Qimarox launched a study into the possibility of using drones for product palletizing. Manufacturers of consumer products can use these flying robots to design a very compact, flexible, and scalable palletizing process. According to Jaco Hooijer, operational manager at Qimarox, “Because of the limitations in terms of capacity and ergonomics, using people to stack goods on pallets is no longer an option for most manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods. Using drones, they can fully automate the palletizing process, while retaining the much greater level of flexibility and scalability entailed by using real people.” The company doesn’t expect palletizing systems using drones to be the ideal solution for every manufacturer of consumer products, but they do expect to see it emerge.
As an iPhone user who remembers reading Dick Tracy as a kid and marveling at his two-way wrist radio, I suspect we’ll see this emerge faster than one can imagine. What about you? Do you see drones becoming a manufacturing resource in the near term? Is there anyone in your company talking about the possibility?