Thinking Outside the Box: Improving Safety Using Warehouse Drone Inspections
Forget drone deliveries, there are other ways UAVs are shaking up the supply chain and logistics industry. Drone warehouse inspections are set to sky-rocket in the 20’s with a new wave of indoor drones capable of revolutionising the safety and accuracy of supply chain management. Here we look at the market leader, the Flyability Elios 2 and finding out how one of the world’s largest logistics experts is getting ahead of the curve to improve safety for workers.
Reducing the Risk
Improving workplace safety is one of the key benefits of implementing a drone strategy. Regardless of your industry, drones can be used to replace human intervention in the most hazardous of tasks. From mining to marine, drones are being leveraged to great benefit in some of the world’s most dangerous working environments.
According to the UK’s HSE, there were 147 workplace fatalities in 2018/19. Of these 40 were caused by falling from a height, 30 from being struck by a moving vehicle, 16 by a moving object and 11 from being trapped by something collapsing or overturning. All of these hazards are commonplace for logistics and warehousing workers and many could potentially have been prevented by automating dangerous tasks.
Inventory management may not seem the most obvious application for a commercial drone but having an eye in the sky has helped to revolutionise the way that agriculture, forestry and raw materials businesses track and monitor their ‘stock’ levels. Where it would take survey teams days to inspect dozens of acres, drones can help to cover large areas quickly. Warehouses often cover hundreds of thousands of square footage and when you consider that stock is more than often stacked vertically, inventory and racking free-space checks can be time consuming and hazardous.
Isn’t it Illegal to Fly a Drone a Drone Indoors?
The mere idea of an aircraft, no matter how small, flying indoors may seem at odds with many aspects of health and safety at work, yet drones can actually help to improve the safety of key tasks in large industrial facilities such as warehouses. Using drones indoors can have some very obvious challenges and limitations yet because indoor drone flights have no effect on actual airspace, (therefore the safety of other aircraft) they are not regulated by aviation authorities. See the guidance from the CAA below:
Indoor Drone use – The applicability of the regulations regarding flights within buildings has been clarified recently. Under the CAA Act 1982, the Air Navigation Order is made for the purposes of regulating air navigation. Flights inside buildings have nothing to do with air navigation because they can have no effect on flights by aircraft in the open air. As a result, flights within buildings, or within areas where there is no possibility for the unmanned aircraft to ‘escape’ into the open air (such as a ‘closed’ netted structure) are not subject to air navigation legislation. Persons intending to operate unmanned aircraft indoors should refer to the appropriate Health and Safety At Work regulations.
The Elios 2 for Inventory Management & Warehouse Drone Inspections
The Elios 2 is the second iteration of the ground-breaking Flyability Elios, the world’s first collision tolerant drone. It was designed specifically to meet the challenges of confined space surveys such as tunnels and tanks inspections and looks like no other drone on the market. The drone sits inside a flexible carbon-fibre cage which helps to protect your hardware and minimise the effects of any vibrations on the sensor should the drone collide with anything. You can read more about the unique features of Elios 2 here.
Warehousing space is optimised to be as cost-effective for the operator and client as possible. Seasonal trends can mean that warehouses are literally packed to the rafters, with inventory checks needed every week and in some cases every day. This means that each aisle needs to be closed while warehouse operatives either scale each rack or remove each pallet to inspect the condition of contents or label. Depending on the size of the warehouse, this can be akin to painting the Forth Bridge. Using indoor drones such as the Elios 2 can help to cut the time it takes to perform inventory management tasks dramatically as well as prevent operatives from working at height and around dangerous machinery. A win-win for productivity and safety.
Not All Drones are Created Equal
When it comes to drone warehouse inspections the Flyability Elios 2 has a few other tricks up its sleeve, namely the distance lock feature and 4K camera. The distance lock means that you can set a specific distance from your survey target. From 30cm to 200cm, on an automated flight plan or manual, you’ll be able to remain the same distance from your inventory to allow for the collection of clear and consistent imagery or video. Add this to the 4K imagery and you have repeatable results as often as you need them. Ideal if you’re using a barcode reader or other optical scanner as part of your automated warehouse management system.
The similarities between mining and utility inspections and warehouse surveys are more similar than you might think and not all drones are up to the challenge. Narrow tunnel like features, dark corners and dust can all play havoc with your inspection data quality. The Flyability Elios was designed to withstand the worst of environmental conditions and the dust-proof upgraded Elios 2 features the most progressive lighting rig ever built for a drone. Add RGB and thermal imaging and the Elios 2 can even assist in inspecting perishable or temperature-controlled merchandise.
Case Study: Yusen Logistics
Pawel Lechocinski is Warehouse Manager at global supply chain specialist Yusen Logistics. Yusen Logistics Europe operates in 16 European countries and has over 15,000 employees and 400 facilities. They pride themselves on providing the most advanced and innovative logistics solutions to the automotive, retail, healthcare and technology/electronics sectors.
We recently visited Yusen UK’s 380,000 sq ft flagship warehouse facility in Northants to find out more about how drones are helping Pawel and his team to improve the safety, accuracy and speed of Yusen’s warehouse inspections.
Managing thousands of pallets and dozens of staff in his busy warehouse facility, Pawel has his work cut out to ensure that all inspections are carried out safely and with as little disturbance to productivity as possible. Random inventory checks have to be carried out regularly. In the event that an unknown or unexpected pallet is identified, the procedure to investigate is time consuming. Trained staff firstly need to locate the relevant manual handling equipment (MHE), usually a scissor lift. This will often be on at the edge of the warehouse close to a charging point. If carrying out manual inspections, operatives also need to assemble the necessary PPE such as safety harnesses and ensure that any risks are mitigated before starting work. This process can take up to an hour, potentially longer if areas of the warehouse need to remain closed while the inspection is carried out or MHE needs to be taken from another location to carry out the task.
In Pawel’s warehouse, racking levels can reach as high as 10m. In the event damaged goods or spills are identified, that area of the warehouse would be out of bounds until each palette has been brought down by a forklift or reach truck to identify the source. Assuming we’re just talking about a random check, Pawel estimates that it takes one trained MHE operative and MHE at least 20 minutes from start to finish. For anything more complex or for stock inspections you could be talking about hours of downtime or losses in productivity. By comparison, it took Pawel only 30 seconds to complete one random check using a drone. A huge saving in time and therefore money.
Random checks aren’t carried out at Yusen’s Wellingborough facility every day but there are other tasks highlighted by Pawel which could easily be improved by using a drone. For example, weekly racking free space checks ensure that the warehouse is operating at its most efficient level. It takes one operative around 8 hours to complete manually. Using a drone, Pawel estimates that free space checks will be five times quicker, with no downtime or manual handling equipment needed and more importantly no risks to personnel.
It’s a Dangerous Job…..
Let’s return to the HSE’s statistics for a second, this time specifically in the Transportation & Logistics sector. The table below shows the serious injury statistics for the industry in 2011/2012 and again highlights the main risks associated with warehouse tasks.
Safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind when you know you’re working in a hazardous environment, yet it’s human nature for errors in judgement and lapses in concentration to happen. The human element will always mean workplace accidents will occur unless risks are mitigated or removed completely. Pawel and his team trialled drone warehouse inspections to streamline the efficiency of operations at Yusen Logistics, but also more importantly to improve safety for warehouse operatives. Removing the need for human intervention and MHE cuts the risk almost completely and streamlines efficiencies.
We’re not talking about completely replacing humans with robotic substitutes here but embracing the automation of hazardous and time-consuming tasks can have huge implications for both a business’s balance sheet and their safety record. Warehouse drone inspections make sense on every level. And it’s a pretty cool thing to fly a drone inside a massive building. Especially an Elios 2. Especially in the dark!
You can find out more about incorporating drones into your warehouse workflow by speaking with our UAV Strategist George. Why not drop him a email or request a call back to find out how Pawel and his team started on their journey.
You can also find out more about the formidable features of the Elios 2 here. With demonstrations and leasing deals available, you can get started sooner than you think.