What seemed like science fiction only 12 months ago is quickly becoming reality. By the end of the year, it is likely that drones will be operating as RFID readers within large distribution centers and outdoor yards.
This is what happens when you have a game-changing technology like RFID.
PINC Solutions, which already has a strong presence in yard management through its RTLS solution, has unveiled PINC Air, a drone platform capable of monitoring high-value assets in yards and distribution centers.
The company is piloting the drone technology with two existing customers and has received an inquiry from a third company. The first outdoor flight at a large heavy manufacturer took place in late January. PINC has plans for an indoor trial to start this month.
The drone solution is expected to be in production by this summer, and available for purchase soon after that.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response we’ve received,” says Matt Yearling, CEO at PINC. “Everybody sees that this will be disruptive and that it’s relevant in a multitude of use cases.
“Since we started flying test routes we’ve come up with use cases we hadn’t even thought about. Once you get the technology in your hand it’s a lightning rod for ideas when you start to engage with the customer.”
Drones are rapidly invading the RFID space, where they can function as mobile readers with the ability to offer inventory updates at the push of a button. Last summer RFID 24-7 wrote about a start-up called ADASA, which expects its “flying robot” readers to be commercially available in June. ADASA is initially targeting the retail marketplace.
In addition, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Germany are studying drone technology and envision a day in the not-too-distant-future when “inventory assistants,” or autonomous robots, fly through warehouses to provide real-time inventory visibility.
PINC’s solution was originally targeted for outside use for very large and dense facilities, such as those common in oil and gas and heavy manufacturing. In the future, it could offer real-time inventory reconciliation for large distribution centers.
The drone is able to fly in winds approaching 15 miles per hour, and can withstand mild precipitation. The current version has a flight time of over 20 minutes and can run 15 to 20 flights a day. It operates with a proprietary highly directional and wind resistant antenna.
“This product addresses a real need for many of our customers operating at significant scale, in delivering high-value, low-cost asset tracking capabilities, especially in heavy manufacturing and large lay-down yard situations,” says Yearling.
“Typically when people talk about drone technology in the supply chain they focus on the last mile, but really the opportunity is much more upstream than that. The initial application was outside in the yard, but we’ve received many requests to go inside for inventory reconciliation, which is a big problem for manufacturers.”
Yearling says that PINC has been approached by a large retailer that operates several distribution centers larger than one million square feet. Typically, the retailer employs several full-time employees to take inventory within each DC. A drone solution can result in tremendous labor savings by automating that process.
Yearling says that the PINC AIR solution is ideal for the automotive industry, where vehicles might be parked 20 deep in an enormous lot. Additionally, the solution targets manufacturers of heavy machinery and equipment who might have assets spread out over a 50-acre site at a large shipping terminal.
“This kind of customer had a consistent question of how to track inventory in a very predictable and easy way,” says Yearling. “A lot of these sites were hampered by getting to the asset by ground, which obviously extenuated the fact that we should probably do it by air. So we’ve moved our technology into the air.”