The future of drones in manufacturing

Jon Lawson

Jonathan Wilkins discusses the future of drones in production

Drones have taken off in a number of industries, both consumer and industrial. Professional services network, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that there will be an explosion in drone technology, increasing from a market size of $2 billion in 2016 to $127 billion by 2020.

But what is the potential for drones in manufacturing?

A drone is an unmanned aircraft, guided either by remote control or by an on-board computer. Drones have been used in military applications for many years, but have more recently been adapted for a range of industrial and commercial purposes.

Drones have become increasingly sophisticated, and with costs falling, they are becoming more popular across different industry sectors.

In the US, the most common commercial uses are photography and property surveying, with industrial uses comprising of around a quarter, according to Business Insider.

A business looking to widely adopt drones is Amazon, which has announced plans to launch a drone order fulfilment service, where packages are dropped from the sky using parachutes. Amazon is already testing the service and plans to conduct more trials in 2017.

The more advanced drones become, the more likely they are to break into new sectors. Intelligent drones use on-board sensors, cameras and processors to autonomously navigate a flight path and make decisions.

With increased technological capabilities, drones could be one of the latest technologies to slot into the smart factory.

Smarter factories

Manufacturing facilities are becoming more connected and intelligent. Connecting machinery equipment to the Internet of Things has opened the doors to a level automation and control greater than ever before.

It is logical for drones to fit into this picture – by using on-board computers they are able to connect to the central control system, fitting into the smart factory at whatever stage of the process they are used for.

The role of drones in manufacturing

Drones can be used right from the beginning of the manufacturing process. The technology can be used to discover sources of raw material, using an aerial view lower than that of a plane.

Once the raw materials are inside the factory, drones can be used for a number of functions including materials handling, transporting products or refilling caches.

The technology can also be used to inspect and monitor quality.  Within the warehouse drones can measure inventory, using barcodes, QR codes or radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Incorporating jobs to perform difficult or dangerous tasks can improve plant safety. Because drones are small and manoeuvrable they can access places that might be tricky for a human to get to.

Once in the space, the drone can start to perform the desired task, for example inspecting equipment, repairing equipment or mixing chemicals where it would not be safe for humans to do so.

If there is a part failure on the production line, drones can be useful to prevent downtime. For example if a machine requires a replacement part, a drone could detect the failure and report back to the control system or plant manager.

Alternatively, if a member of staff discovers the problem they can simply pick up a tablet and have it delivered from inventory, meaning production time isn’t wasted.

The market is growing, and it is looking increasingly likely that drones will capture industry, although only time will tell if the market size will meet predictions.

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director at EU Automation