How Drone Technology Is Revolutionising Our Warehouses

IAG Cargo recently announced a successful drone trial in our Madrid warehouse. Carly Morris, Head of Innovation at IAG Cargo, tells us how this came about and some of the ups and downs along the way.

How do you solve the problem of inventory counts? This time-intensive task requires agents to walk around the warehouse using cherry pickers to reach the items at the top as a way of counting each piece of stock. This undertaking needs to occur at least once a week – sometimes daily – and takes us up to 6,500 hours a year. 

As Head of Innovation, I set us the challenge of finding a better way. 

The challenges of the warehouse range from ever-moving stock to tightly positioned racks which leave little room for manoeuvre, as well as handling the sheer variety of the cargo we transport. Every piece of freight is a different size, there are over a hundred different types of barcodes that need to be registered, and whilst some pieces are neatly placed on their rack, others are not. 

Despite making the headlines for all the wrong reasons at airports recently, drone technology seemed like a promising place to start. Not only can drones easily access items in high places, many also incorporate sophisticated cameras to scan and quickly process barcodes – all whilst acting autonomously.

Our first attempt to introduce drones in 2018 did not go to plan. We trialled a custom-built option that frequently crashed on landing and required a specialist on-site to fix it – almost as time consuming as the manual inventory count. In the spirit of innovation, we failed fast, learned our lessons and moved on.

Rather than creating a drone from scratch, we partnered with FlytBase, a drone software start-up. FlytBase takes off-the-shelf drones and uploads software that allows them to complete different tasks. As well as the drones being tried, tested and therefore safe, it’s also a much more scalable option that requires less upfront investment. 

Working alongside FlytBase, we developed software that enables the drones to autonomously navigate multiple racks by flying overhead, accurately detect and read barcodes, identify empty slot locations, navigate obstacles and return itself to a dock for self-charging.   

By changing the speed of the drone, the distance of it from the cargo and the resolution of the camera, amongst other variables, we’ve achieved 82% accuracy in identifying barcodes – a remarkable result considering there’s still one trial to go.

In the new year, we will continue to tweak these parameters to further optimise performance and explore how drones might work at the scale we require to keep track of all the stock in our Heathrow, Madrid and Dublin hubs. 

Visit our Innovation hub to explore more exciting developments at IAG Cargo.