July 23, 2014
Drone sunset
Image Credit: Gregory Younger

It’s been a while since we dealt with the potential for delivery drones here, and even when we did it was with tongue firmly in cheek.

The phenomenon is rarely far from the headlines, however, and more logistics professionals are beginning to analyze the effect that drone technology could have, from internal warehouse management to external distribution.

While the latter has been widely derided as a pipe dream, at least in the near term, due to FAA restrictions and very real concerns over safety, the former may be closer than you think.

The use of drones to improve internal storage operations isn’t such a leap when we consider the existing automation within warehouses and along assembly lines. In fact Amazon, the pioneer of publicity-seeking drones late last year, already has drones at work within its own warehouse infrastructure.

Although we tend to look to the skies when we consider drone technology, that’s more media hype than reality. In some cases flying drones will have uses within the warehouse environment, but the most immediate applications will be for ground drones that can connect up routine tasks.

Some of the suggested areas for drone use in internal supply chain operations include:

  • Simple A to B product relocation for automated assembly processes,
  • Automatic replenishment of stocked items when an inventory system flags low levels,
  • Integrated hybrid human-drone packaging lines, in which drones fill the repetitive but tedious tasks that have high rates of human rework,
  • Light item lifting to high shelving units typically accessed by human-operated lift tools,
  • Performing functional tasks during off-peak hours, when skeleton crews are running and employee costs would run into higher rates of pay,
  • Automated palletizing systems where product dimensions are standard and packing routines do not vary.


Delivery drones that serve external customers will continue to hog the headlines, but the real advantage for supply chain professionals is likely to come from applying the technology internally.

Keep this in mind as you consider adjustments to your warehouse operations in the weeks and months to come!


March 27, 2014
Raphael Pirker, Founder, Team BlackSheep
Raphael Pirker, drone activist? (Photo credit: LeWeb13)

Drones have become a topic in any conversation about the future of retail and e-commerce. Sure there are all of those pesky practical considerations about drones hitting people, houses, electric wires, etc. But the biggest obstacle, until earlier this month, appeared to be the federal government.


The FAA was master of the skies – at least it was until earlier this month when an Austrian entrepreneur challenged the agency and won. Raphael Pirker was hit with a $10,000 fine by the FAA in 2011 for flying a five pound styrofoam drone above the University of Virginia to film the campus for a promotional video. The FAA charged that he had operated without a license and flown recklessly close to buildings, cars in a tunnel and pedestrians.


In throwing Pirker’s case out, the NTSB administrative judge also threw out the FAA regulation banning drones. Saying that there was no “enforceable” rule against Pirker’s drone, and that the government’s claim amounted to a claim of jurisdiction over everything in the sky, including, “a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider.” Pirker’s company TBS Avionics operates out of Hong Kong.


Where does this leave us? At present, there are no laws against commercial drones. That’s likely to change soon as we confront safety issues. Even Pirker contends that there do need to be safety regulations in place. There is a difference after all between a five pound styrofoam drone flying around the Virginia countryside and a fifty pound drone circling the State Liberty. Time will tell whether the commercial drone market becomes the growth industry that Raphael Pirker glimpses on the horizon.






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