Counting goods on pallets in a warehouse is a labor-intensive process, especially if that has to be done manually. Groningen company Arox Smart Technologies is now investigating the possibility of having the counting work carried out by a drone. What is special is that 5G is used for the live transfer of camera images and the control of the drone.

Automate counting

Arox Smart Technologies from Hoogezand is a supplier of logistics software. From various companies with large warehouses, the question arose how to organize the counting process of stocks more efficiently. At a good time, the idea arose to have the counting work done by a drone.

Because it takes a lot of computing power to allow the drone to autonomously navigate through a warehouse and process the images, it was chosen to use 5G to transmit the data live to a computer on the ground, and control the drone remotely. This allows the drone to stay as light as possible.

“Nowadays, companies have to count their stocks more often than they used to, because the turnaround is much higher. This counting and checking is a labor-intensive and expensive process. This 5G pilot is an important step to automate the counting of warehouse stocks,” said Arno Bruining, director of Arox Smart Technologies.

The reason to use 5G and not, for example, 4G or WiFi is that these protocols do not have enough capacity to transmit the data quickly enough for the purpose of control. Bruining: “As Arox, we wouldn’t have thought about 5G at first. However, with 4G or WiFi, it is not possible to let a drone fly independently through aisles indoors. Thanks to 5G, we can use small, agile and affordable drones. In addition, with 5G, we provide a uniform solution that is separate from the infrastructure of companies.”

Edge computing

The phenomenon that the data is not processed on the device itself, but decentralised, is also called edge computing. “Edge computing means that the information is processed at the edge of the mobile network. The collection of data also takes place close to the sources, just like the delivery of the processed information. Because the data is processed locally and sent via 5G, a faster response speed is possible.”

The first tests show that the 5G network is fast enough to ensure that the drone can locate and navigate itself stably and quickly based on video footage and sensor data sent to their localization algorithm in the edge network. The video footage is then also used for counting goods.

5 Groningen

The project will be carried out from 5Groningen, a partnership that is intended to research and develop new applications of 5G technology. In addition to Arox Smart Technologies, VMware/Dell EMC, VodafoneZiggo, University of Groningen, TNO and Hanze University of Applied Sciences are involved in the 5G pilot on drone inventory.

Within this pilot is being tested on the 5G network that uses the 3.5 GHz test license of 5Groningen, made available by Agency Telecom. VodafoneZiggo takes care of the 5G connection in this pilot and, together with TNO, has realized the technical infrastructure of the indoor 5G network. VMware/Dell EMC provides the platform for processing the data.

Other initiatives

According to Bruining, the Groningen solution is suitable for any company with a large warehouse that has the objective of reducing the cost of counting the stock. “A number of large companies from the Netherlands and abroad have already expressed interest in this innovation.”

Worldwide, there are several initiatives aimed at enabling warehouse inventory by drones. Walmart started this in 2016. The University of Japan developed an indoor GPS system for drone positioning, and MIT came up with a solution based on scanning RFID tags. In a series of pilot projects by Volvo, L’Oréal and Renault, it was found that inventory of a warehouse by means of a drone can be three to ten times as fast as manual counting.

(cover photo: Thomas Oosterloo)