Warehouses up and down the country have been feeling the benefits inventAIRy XL can bring to their operations. We spoke to Jonathan Borg, Head of Stock Control at PD Ports, on why they implemented the technology and how harnessing drones has helped them keep colleagues safer, improve customer service and increase productivity.

How do warehouse drones help improve safety? 

Our service agreements require us to count a certain percentage of stock – an obligation that runs to tens of thousands of pallets. Our stock controllers can usually cover one aisle at the lower picking level on foot no problem. If they can, (depending on the height of the product) they can do the second without the need of a scissor lift.

But to go higher than that – and some pallet racking in our Felixstowe warehouse goes up to 8m high – had  an element of risk because it involved our operatives spending a significant amount of time working at height on a scissor lift. We have very high safety standards, but the best-case scenario is always to eliminate the risk wherever possible, and the inventAIRy XL solution has enabled us to do just that.  

How does the drone work, and what tasks does it perform? 

It completes all higher-level stock checks in our Felixstowe warehouse. When it is in flight it takes a snapshot of the stock by scanning the pallet barcodes, compares this with our Warehouse Management System and notifies us of any positional discrepancies. We schedule the stock takes to run when the warehouse is at its quietest periods; during weeknights and at the weekend.

I set the date and time it needs to take flight. It then boots itself up, takes flight from its  integrated ground robot and follows the path that we’ve set on locations in each of the aisles. The warehouse runs to 161,000 square feet. The setup was simple, too – RAWview created a virtual map of our warehouse layout and told the drone where it should and shouldn’t go, and from there it was good to perform its tasks.

It can run for five hours on a single charge, covering – on average – 2,000 locations in that time. Mistakes do happen  when managing huge volumes of fast-moving inventory , that’s why we have control as part of the operation – and it’s why we run it every weekend to ensure any possible stock discrepancies are captured and resolved as early as possible. 

How has this warehouse drone project benefited the business so far? 

There’s been a significant reduction in health and safety risks since it’s eliminated the need to use scissor lifts for counting stock – and that was one of the primary drivers for our decision to look into automating our inventory counts.

Not only that, it’s clear that innovation projects like this need to demonstrate an economic benefit when compared to doing the same task manually, and we are already seeing a positive return in this area, with direct costs of meeting our inventory count obligations reduced.

In terms of indirect cost savings, we recognise that as a result of the system’s smart charging technology, we are actually consuming less energy during the peak stocktake period, too – a sustainability benefit that we hadn’t actually considered in the original business case.

Are PD Ports’ customers seeing the benefits?  

Over the course of the last three months , we’ve been able to provide our customers with evidence of near-100% inventory accuracy. This, in part, has been as a consequence of the system’s ability to find and flag any WMS deviation in real-time – in turn,  we can always be a step ahead of the game and rectify any anomaly before a potential replenishment error occurs. 

It’s a great tool to give our customers even more confidence in the quality of service that we are providing. 

Regarding those colleagues who used to carry out the stock take at height, what do they do now the drone does this instead?  

By relieving colleagues of this time-consuming and laborious task, their time is now almost exclusively spent doing productive work, which further enhances the service we are delivering to our customers.

We’ve also seen an improvement in our order fulfilment time, because we no longer have scenarios where colleagues waste time trying to find misplaced stock.

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