Warehouse drones scan codes to help track inventory

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Two Indianapolis-area logistics companies are deploying a tool developed largely for outdoor uses to help them keep track of inventory inside giant warehouses.

Greenfield-based Progressive Logistics and Indianapolis-based Langham Logistics are both working with Pittsburgh-based Gather AI Inc. to use drones to scan and track items in their facilities. Their leaders say the move could be a stepping stone to other technology.

Gather AI launched commercially two years ago, after starting in 2017, and now has 25 customers across the United States. It deploys drones that are programmed to scan products into a warehouse management system, allowing companies to locate outbound inventory quickly and easily.

The company says its drones have located some $1 million in inventory in customer warehouses that had been deemed lost by personnel. Gather AI declined to say how much it charges for its services.

The drones aren’t used to pick inventory to be shipped. Instead, their job is to quickly scan codes on the boxes or containers stacked in warehouses so companies can quickly determine how much product they have on hand. It can take workers as long as 90 days to locate and scan every piece of inventory in a larger warehouse; drones can do the same job in less than three.

Greenfield-based Progressive Logistics uses Gather AI Inc. drones to scan and track items at its Mount Comfort Logistics Center in Hancock County. (IBJ photos/Mickey Shuey)

The drones fly autonomously through designated aisles and take pictures of pallet locations and their contents. The software then uses artificial intelligence to analyze the images and scan the barcodes before entering that information into a management system, a process known as cycle counting.

Manufactured by Chinese brand DJI, each drone is equipped with lights to illuminate the pallets to make them easier to scan. The drone navigates aisles using custom codes placed along each bay of items, allowing it to gain its bearings on an installed virtual map system.

A pilot tends to the drone during its flight and monitors the software for any problems. The individual is also responsible for changing the drone’s battery—which lasts about 20 minutes—and ensuring proper safety protocols during flights.

Because the flights are conducted indoors, drone pilots do not have to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration—nor do the drones need to be registered—but Gather AI offers extensive training on operating the devices. In the event of a crash or any damage to the drone, Gather AI sends a replacement at no charge.

Progressive Logistics has signed a deal to use one Gather AI drone at its facility at the Mount Comfort Logistics Center in Hancock County. But the firm—which did not reveal the cost of the investment—expects to eventually have several drones in operation at the facility.

Nate Gosbin

“Progressive’s idea for getting the drone was really driven by efficiency and time-saving efforts,” said Nate Gosbin, a business analyst for the logistics company. “With our current resources, we’re really busy because we’re constantly expanding.”

He said Gather AI’s drones can quickly check inventory bays—sections of an aisle—within minutes, while a single person operating through a lift might take several hours to fully scan. He said the company hopes to eventually replace humans with drones to scan products and place those workers in other parts of the company where they could be more effective.

Langham Logistics is using Gather AI drones at three facilities—a downtown Indianapolis building, its headquarters along West 74th Street, and another property in Phoenix—with plans to expand to others in the next couple of years, including a Whitestown facility in 2024.

Scott Swanson

Scott Swanson, Langham’s director of operations and engineering, joined the company in April 2020 to oversee an expansion of technology at all six of Langham’s facilities.

He said Gather AI has been “a really good partner … they really work with us.”

Langham spends about $4,000 per month per drone, he said, a per-unit cost that will drop as Langham adds more drones.

Langham has used other automation technologies to try to streamline its processes. Those include a pilot program in Phoenix focused on robotics as well as the use of smart glasses or other visual displays to help staff more easily locate items. The company also uses radio frequency identification systems, or RFID, to track inventory as it moves throughout its facilities.

And it uses robots to disinfect floors and perform other tasks, along with robotic arms to sort, pack and store products.

But to date, none of those investments have had the same kind of immediate impact as drones, Swanson said.

“There’s absolutely a return on investment,” he said. “We have absolutely realized that ROI sometimes on the other automation, but you don’t necessarily see that right away.”

And Swanson expects the use of drones to expand. “Right now, we just do cycle counting, but the technology is evolving,” he said.

To that end, Langham is working with Gather AI to test and implement new tools and technology that will also allow the logistics firm to move workers into other areas.

“We’ve been able to work with [Gather AI] on quite a few changes, and they’ve been very responsive, with that personal touch with maintenance and replacing some of the drones,” Swanson said.

Greenfield-based Progressive Logistics uses Gather AI Inc. drones to scan and track items at its Mount Comfort Logistics Center in Hancock County. (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

For its part, Gather AI is leaning into what it hopes will be a growing role in the autonomous drone industry over the next few years.

In June, the company acquired its biggest competitor in the space, Ware, for undisclosed terms. The move made Gather AI the largest autonomous inventory management system in the world.

The company has not said whether it plans to expand into other areas, such as drone-based delivery—the so-called last-mile service Amazon is experimenting with in some areas of Texas and California, mostly for prescriptions and non-fragile products smaller than 5 pounds.

Judy Gordon, vice president of marketing for Gather AI, said she sees the company for now as filling a niche in the warehousing ecosystem while also creating opportunities for workers to learn new skills.

“We’re taking this sort of mundane, boring job where you go and scan [items], and turning it into a much more interesting job—the employees love it,” she said. “It helps with retention and employee satisfaction … allowing our customers to retain labor and making it a more exciting and more fulfilling job.”•

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