German logistics experts are working to create flying robots that will automate inventory management at retail outlets and commercial warehouses, but there is still some way to go before this new solution comes to market.

Flying robots soon doing your firm’s stocktaking?

Inventory management is yet another field where robots may be poised to take over from the human workforce.  At retail outlets and goods warehouses, the periodic regular stocktaking exercise is usually a tedious task that engages the full attention of the staff for a whole day or more. Now researchers at the Dortmund, Germany-based Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) have set out to find an automated solution to this time-consuming process, creating flying robots which can perform the stocktaking exercise on their own. Logistics specialist Marco Freund, who is leading on the project, has a vision of an optimised inventory system where “the person in charge is sitting at his desk and at the press of a button can inspect inventories or perhaps search for a specific item without incurring any staffing or logistics costs.” Dubbed InventAIRy, the new solution is expected to represent a great advance on current systems of inventory management.  Other IT experts have already come up with software packages and chip-based systems in an attempt to automate the task but have invariably run up against some basic problems, such as the current unfeasibility of equipping a company’s entire stock with RFID tags.

Work in progress

The main advantage of flying robots as described by the Fraunhofer Institute team is that, unlike existing solutions based on tags or barcodes, they will be able to fully automate inventory management, with a system that runs independently in real time, thus taking the stocktaking task entirely off the hands of the staff. When perfected, the system is expected to work on two levels. First the robot will draw on information gathered from ultrasound sensors, 3D cameras and laser scanners, processed by ‘intelligent algorithms’ in order to create maps that will enable the flying assistant to work out how the warehouse is configured and orient itself within the building. Secondly, the robot will record the items in stock using optical sensors or radio sensors. At the present moment there is still some way to go however, and the team will almost certainly need to build and test a number of prototypes before arriving at the final product.

Potential paradigm shift

The Dortmund researchers have scheduled the start of the prototype phase for mid-2015. Explains Marco Freund: “By mid-year, we intend to start with a partially automated flight. In this phase, the robot equipped with the identification technology hovers – without having to be controlled via remote operation – at one position, and circumvents collisions with obstructions, such as shelves.”  So the InventAIRy project is clearly taking time and the final product and system are far from being market-ready. Once perfected however, the flying assistants are likely to represent an enormous step forward for retail and industrial stock systems, providing not only precision inventory management but also more general real time stock information. Meanwhile, a few months ago, a report from the Boston Consulting Group revealed that for every 10,000 human workers in industry in France and the US there were 1,000 robots in operation. These proportions could well change radically when the InventAIRy Project comes on stream and the new system might even bring a radical shakeup in industrial and retail logistical models.

By Guillaume Scifo