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Warehouse inventory management has become critical in light of pandemic-related supply chain issues. Unfortunately, it’s a practice that can sometimes fall by the wayside. According to one estimate, 43% of businesses in the U.S. don’t track inventory or do so using a manual system. Inventory accuracy often suffers as a result. A 2017 Peoplevox survey found that 34% of businesses have shipped an order late because they inadvertently sold a product that was not in stock.
Drones have emerged as a potential solution to the problem of inventory tracking in large warehouses, where other technologies might be less cost- or time-efficient. MIT and Fraunhofer have announced the development of systems that use flying drones to keep track of products in warehouses. So have companies including FlytWare, Ware, Gather, and Aeriu, which analyzes inventory images captured by drones to identify stock shortages. A newer player in the market is Vimaan, which is developing a drone-based computer vision platform for product tracking and management across the warehouse — including receiving, picking, storage, and pack-and-ship. Vimaan emerged from stealth today with $25 million in venture capital from unnamed institutional investors.
Tracking inventory with drones
Vimaan was founded in 2017 by SK Ganapathi, a former Lenovo GM and Qualcomm VP looking to leverage drones in indoor environments including — but not limited to — warehouses. Warehouses were an attractive target, he says, both because of the size of the market and the technical challenge of needing to constantly monitor inventory at various shelf heights across large areas.
“Vimaan uses a proprietary and sophisticated hardware module to capture the environment, and then applies computer vision and AI models to extract actionable and usable information from this data,” Ganapathi told VentureBeat via email. “[T]he holistic nature of Vimaan’s data capture systems allow capture of not just barcodes, but also a multitude of inventory attributes, such as text or logo readability, bin location, storage space utilization, object dimensioning, counting and segregation — identifying inventory damage, detection of pilferage or leakage, and safety hazards in the warehouse such as damaged pylons or racks.”
Vimaan continuously retrains the models with new data to ensure that they remain accurate as products move and shift. Ganapathi says that this allows the platform to minimize waste and bolster compliance, among other goals, by checking products for things like expiration dates and lot numbers in addition to barcodes.
“An IT manager or a warehouse manager can have all their inventory data at their fingertips from any location,” Ganapathi said. “Vimaan provides a high level of accuracy in packing and shipping against the packing list, which in turn reduces unnecessary costs from customer claims, chargebacks, and reverse logistics … A manager [who] manages multiple warehouses can … use this data for other powerful analytics that supports comparison of warehouse performances, tracking seasonal trends, [and more].”
Ganapathi also floats the idea of using Vimaan’s drones to track warehouse worker productivity. While U.S. state and federal laws give wide discretion to employers engaged in employee surveillance — at least so long as the equipment is visible or disclosed in writing — some employees might object to their employer using drones to track them, whether under the guise of analytics or not. A recent ExpressVPN survey found that 43% of workers would quick their job in their manager implemented surveillance measures.
Late last year, California passed AB-701, which prevents employers from algorithmically counting health and safety compliance against workers’ productive time.
“At this point, Vimaan’s computer vision solutions are focused more on inventory tracking rather than on workers,” a Vimaan spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “Given the breadth of the data captured, it can be extremely rich and provide insights into equipment and worker productivity without necessarily directly tracking workers … Vimaan does not store or provide any personally identifiable information. Vimaan operates on-premise servers at its customers’ facilities. Data specific to inventory does not leave the facility, except as approved by the customer.”
Warehouse inventory tracking via drone seems poised to become a profitable industry as the scale of supply chains grow. (Indeed, some retailers have already deployed similar technology in brick-and-mortar stores.) Warehouse drones could do away with the need for workers to take inventory manually, a tedious, error-prone process that typically leads to heavy foot traffic.
On the other hand, inventory tracking via drone requires that products be correctly labeled and display those labels consistently. Drones, being machinery, could also break and need expensive ongoing maintenance.
But Ganapathi says that interest in its technology remains strong. Vimaan’s customer base includes “global top five players” in the third-party logistics space, he claims, as well as “sector leaders/Fortune 200 companies” in telecom, contract manufacturing, electrical components, defense, and aerospace.
“The pandemic has only highlighted the challenges related to labor supply and labor density in the warehouse. The Vimaan solution strikes at the heart of these issues, automating highly repetitive tasks that are unsafe and inefficient,” Ganapathi continued. “Prior to the pandemic, warehouses experienced challenges in employee recruiting and retention. The pandemic further compounded these industry wide pains; the automation and efficiencies delivered by the Vimaan platform frees up existing personnel to perform higher-valued functions in the warehouse.”
Vimaan, which is based in Silicon Valley, currently has about 40 employees. It plans to expand that number to between 60 and 70 by 2023, chiefly to help “build out the additional capabilities to go beyond drones to enable inventory tracking across the warehouse and build meaningful customer traction,” according to Ganapathi.