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Drones Offer Additional Safety and Efficiency in Warehouses

Machinery and systems must be regularly inspected, while goods inventories are carried out at least once a year. In modern warehouses, which can measure up to 44 meters (144 feet) high, even routine tasks can turn into high-risk ventures. This is why KION subsidiary Dematic relies on the use of drones both to simplify checks and inspections as well as to increase occupational safety.


It's 11:23 on Tuesday morning in the spare parts warehouse of a German machine manufacturer. Ever since the warehouse management system displayed an error message five hours ago, nothing has been running; the entire plant is at a standstill. Since nothing can be stored, the trucks are lining up on the loading ramps, and since nothing can be relocated, important spare parts are only reaching customers following significant delays. And then there’s the fact that employees on the early shift have been sitting in the breakfast room for hours, looking at their cell phones. It looks as though employees on the late shift will have to catch up on the work that has been piling up since the downtime began.

“I think I’ve got the solution,” exclaims a voice from the high rack warehouse. At a height of nine meters, a trained industrial climber finally discovers the problem area after a long search through the many rack levels: a pallet has become jammed and is blocking the plant. The service technician checks his safety belt once more and then climbs onto the rack with pliers and screwdriver. Three minutes later, the problem has been resolved, the professional is back on terra firma and the plant is once again up and running. Yet the professional took a risk and the downtime at the spare parts warehouse created a significant amount of inconvenience and cost for the company.

KION subsidiary Dematic provides specially designed drones for inspections, safety checks and visual controls in warehouses.

The Concept Behind Inspecting Warehouses With Drones Came From Colleagues

It was the personal passion of these three colleagues – Bernd Kurz, Patrick Karg, and Sven Hagner – that got the ball rolling. “The first test flights were held in a warehouse on a trial basis. And because the drones were equipped with cameras, Bernd, Patrick, and Sven sent me the film footage,” notes Kronfeld. And just like that, the colleagues knew they might be on to something. When reviewing the material, Kronfeld noticed the huge potential that drones could offer intralogistics. Soon after, the first pilot deployment was scheduled at Dematic's customer, Mammut, a sporting goods manufacturer. Dematic employees were given access to the warehouse for test purposes and to further explore the limits of what was possible, while retaining maximum focus on the practical applications. “The whole set of events set off a truly exciting process. With each test flight, we gained a better understanding of where we could apply what we have learned,” says Kronfeld.

The drones run on lithium-ion batteries and are each equipped with four engines, LED headlights and high-resolution cameras. Thus, even the smallest details, such as inspection stickers, can be recorded and evaluated. The thermal heads attached can also be used to measure an installation’s surface temperatures at great heights. After several tests, a comprehensive set of uses emerged: from supporting inspections or adjustment work all the way to the major topic of workplace safety, the potential application areas for drones are enormous. Sickler was also on board right away after he heard about the pilot project and he is convinced “it gives our customers a tangible competitive edge.”

Dematic's Drone Service Team, which developed this drone inspection in warehouses.

Reduced Risk and Downtime Thanks to Drone Technology

“Safety in the workplace always takes highest priority,” says René Sickler, Senior Director of Customer Services at KION subsidiary, Dematic, adding, “which is why all safety-relevant facilities and components need to be regularly inspected and checked for any problems.” The tasks fall to specially trained experts who often need to manage their inspections using climbing ropes, fixings and scaffolding, including at great height and under the most adverse conditions. Dematic has now discovered a way of reducing the time spent on these routine inspections by around 70 percent and of lowering the risk of accidents to nearly zero. “With our new Dematic Drone Inspection Services, plants will be shut down for shorter periods of time and in a more intentional way,” explains Sickler. The idea is simple: A drone flies over the rack levels, filming and photographing as it goes and the experts can keep an eye on the screen for potential sources of error at height, but from the safety of the ground.

Adrian Kronfeld, Head of Service South at Dematic, is visibly delighted. He looks up at the inspection drone with great satisfaction as it once more complies with all parameters as intended in the repeated test flight. It has been a long journey from the initial idea all the way to using the drones so efficiently, he says. It began as a passion project – an idea of a few engineers. “I have three colleagues in the team who race drones in their spare time,” explains Kronfeld. “During a lonely night shift, the three of them began coming up with ideas for making certain processes run more smoothly.”

The drones run on lithium-ion batteries and are each equipped with four engines, LED headlights and high-resolution cameras.

Multiple uses for drone inspections

Within facility management, the use of drones can result in significant cost and time savings far beyond the intralogistics industry. “Sprinkler systems, skylights and roof hatches can also be inspected at height as well as storage and retrieval systems,” explains Kronfeld. The drones can easily recognize where leaks in the roof are located or conduct inspections in winter at low temperatures and icy conditions to discover which flat roofs, if any, need to be cleared of snow.

Another important use for drones is performing inspections. German law stipulates that each year, a minimum of 20 percent of the entire rack system of a warehouse must be tested. “A rack system partly consists of crossbars and they must checked regularly to see whether the plastic has deteriorated, all screws and braces are still in place and to check whether important parts might be missing. It can all be done highly effectively using drones,” states Kronfeld. It saves time as well as costs but also has yet another benefit. The visual material captured can also be saved, which allows long-term documentation of every inspection.

Dematic relies on the use of drones both to simplify checks and inspections and to increase occupational safety.

Nobody Has to Put Themselves at Risk Thanks to Drones Inspections

Dematic believes the highest potential is in safety at the workplace. Some warehouses can measure up to 44 meters (144 feet) in height and at these levels, any irregularity can create a serious risk. “If a pallet has become damaged or jammed, the drone can simply fly in and take stock of the situation. It is a highly practical way of protecting the health of your workforce,” explains Kronfeld. Even trained employees who must climb structures at their workplace are at risk – vibrations can make the damage even worse, or the jammed pallets may suddenly detach completely.

The potential held by inspection drones was recognized by the KION Group right away. The Group provided total support to Kronfeld in all bureaucratic matters as the concept progressed: insurance, the patent process and product safety issues were cleared and they helped in achieving the CE declaration of conformity. “The drones are registered with the German Federal Aviation Authority and each drone is practically married to its pilot,” says Kronfeld. “Each drone has its own identification, just like airplanes, and the drone pilots have all received their pilot’s license.” Thus, every drone has a human pilot; but how long will that last?

Are Transport Drones Next?

Discussions are already underway at the KION Group regarding automated drones. In the future, aircraft alone just might perform routine tasks such as inventories once a drone's camera image can be linked to corresponding software that can read and scan stock or pallets. And the use of transport drones is also being investigated. “The design already exists,” notes Kronfeld. “However, specific safety issues remain unresolved. You would have to set up special flight corridors and comply with multiple guidelines and safety requirements.”

For the time being, there is still a long way to go before drones replace industrial trucks. But the considerations have demonstrated one aspect: Applications for drones in intralogistics is certain to expand sooner rather than later.