In my last post, I offered an update on how serious Amazon is with getting FAA approval for the use of drones as a delivery option. For this post, I will expand upon this topic to explore if other opportunities might exist for manufacturers.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) suggests that one of the most promising industries for drone use is agriculture. Drone use could include the creation of aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution, fertilizer application and delivery of spare parts to farmers for equipment emergencies. According to this Farmweek, in this video, 40% of Japan’s rice fields are already being crop dusted with drones. So, in effect, drones have already become a part of a food and beverage manufacturer’s supply chain.
Professor D. Ken Giles concurs. As a member of the department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis, professor Giles explains in this video the benefits of using drones to address agriculture management tasks.
Quoting from issue #5 – 2014 of Dassault Systèmes’ Compass Magazine, in the article Disruptive Drones, “The first unmanned, remote-controlled helicopter for crop dusting was invested in 1987 by Yamaha Motor Company of Iwata, Japan. Today, approximately 2,400 Yamaha RMAX helicopters spray Japanese rice fields with pesticides or are used for planting, managing weeds and fertilizing.” Clearly, these RMAX units are effectively drones, and are already performing important agriculture management tasks.
Continuing from the article, both Google and Facebook have invested in drone technology to progress their mutual goal to enable Internet connectivity in underserved areas. In March 2014, Facebook acquired UK drone manufacturer Ascenta, whose aerospace engineers joined Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to focus on connectivity aircraft. A month later, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a US startup founded in 2012 that makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones. Manufacturers could follow similar strategies as ways to connect remote warehouses or plant locations in areas where Internet access is limited. Time will tell.
An Indoor Drone
Drones are not limited to outdoor use. Qimarox, a material-handling company based in the Netherlands, is studying the use of drones for picking goods off shelves and assembling them into pallet loads – inside a warehouse. The company envisions manufacturers of consumer products using drones to design a compact, flexible and scalable palletizing process.
“Because of capacity and ergonomic limitations, using people to stack goods on pallets is no longer an option for most manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods,” said Jaco Hooijer, Qimarox’s operational manager. “Using drones, they can fully automate the palletizing process while retaining the much greater level of flexibility and scalability entailed when using people.”
Until safety regulations are in place, commercial applications of drones are all but grounded in the US. Meanwhile, the FAA is setting up six drone research and test sites from Alaska to Virginia, the first of which should now be operational.
“Initially, we see the commercial use of drones limited to visual line-of-sight in daytime operations only, so they can be landed quickly in case of emergency,” said Ben Gielow of AUVSI. “Amazon’s parcel delivery concept not only requires a drone that operates autonomously via GPS, but one with the proper sensing technology to avoid collision with another drone or other aircraft, and that is all still very much in the research stage.”
This constraint sounds similar to what manufactures must consider when automating picking processes within their warehouses – a task that can be effectively planned and optimized for.
In conclusion, it isn’t likely we’ll see any drones in 2014 becoming an integral part of the production process or value chain, other than their current role within the Food & Beverage industry. However, with the incredible technology breakthroughs and the focus of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see some interesting developments in the years to come.
Gordon can be found on Google+ .