One more word on drones: Warehouses

Drones might never find meaningful retail delivery work, but they might find practical employment in warehouses.

After writing my short post about the use of drones to deliver packages, it occurred to me that there’s one more realistic use case. Unfortunately (or not), this is a use case that you’ll never see if you’re not an Amazon employee. But I think it’s very realistic. And obviously, I just can’t get drones out of my head.

As I argued, I don’t think you’ll see drones for retail delivery, except perhaps as a high-cost, very conspicuous consumption frill. What could get more conspicuous? Drone pilots are expensive, and I don’t think we’ll see regulations that allow autonomous drones flying in public airspace any time soon. Drones also aren’t terribly fast, and even if you assume that the warehouses are relatively close to the customers, the number of trips a drone can make per hour are limited. There’s also liability, weather conditions, neighbors shooting the drones down, and plenty of other drawbacks.

These problems all disappear if you limit your use of drones to the warehouse itself. Don’t send the drone to the customer: that’s a significant risk for an expensive piece of equipment. Instead, use the drones within the warehouse to deliver items to the packers. Weather isn’t an issue. Regulation isn’t an issue; the FAA doesn’t care what you do inside your building. Autonomous flight isn’t just a realistic option, it’s preferable: one massive computing system can coordinate and optimize the flight paths of all the drones. Amazon probably has some of that system built already for its Kiva robots, and Amazon is rather good at building large computing architectures. Distance isn’t an issue. Warehouses are big, but they’re not that big, and something (or someone) has to bring the product to the packing station, whether it’s a human runner or a Kiva robot.

And with drones, you get to use three dimensions effectively, while humans (or Kivas) are limited to floors, catwalks, and ramps. I would bet that Amazon could move more product around with a cleverly designed drone army than with the alternatives.

There are still some problems. Drones aren’t heavy lifters, so the large-screen TVs and other bulky items will have to travel some other way. And the drones will have to pick things off the shelves; it might be clever to redesign the shelves to slide out as a drone approaches them.

Something fun to think about on a rainy December evening in New England.

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