DroneScan: the startup using flying ‘copters to manage your stock

Stock take

Data management can make or break a business. Especially when it comes to big companies, refining a simple process could save you millions. It’s all about maximising efficiency.

A few weeks ago we featured Big Inja — the data management startup that explained how important it is to visualise your business processes in order to make the right decisions. Now, Durban-based software startup DroneScan is taking it to another level. Literally. The startup is using drones to scan barcoded items in warehouses shelved too high for pesky humans suffering from acrophobia, or just love new tech and uber efficiency.

The problem

The problem is that the amount of effort that goes into doing inventory (essentially scanning a little sticker at the top of a few stories worth of containers) requires a forklift, a cage and a team of hard-bodied men. This is simply ridiculous, Pons argues.

The founder says that he discovered frustration after watching people do repetitive, but relatively simple, jobs which take a lot of time and energy. In a recent Drone Readiness whitepaper, Pons writes:

When it comes to repetitive barcode scanning operations out of reach of a human, drones can be 100 times faster and 100 times more energy efficient than using a reach truck to lift a 0.8kg barcode scanner held by an 80kg human in a 100kg man-cage up to each item to scan it. An 800g drone can lift an 80g barcode scanner to do the same thing. A drone operator can count as much stock in a warehouse in two days as a team of 80 people with handheld scanners and reach trucks can count in 3 days.

Read more: Big Inja is the startup hound that wants to barcode your business

Having said that, one drone theoretically replaces the need for 80 employees. “Robots should do the horrible jobs,” suggests Pons. “Just like introducing barcoding to replace written records did not reduce jobs, it just let enabled people to do things they really are good at instead of doing admin.”

There may, however, be a few Luddites who disagree with that?

The solution

The drones rely on an innovative camera-driven navigation system. Indoors, drones don’t have reliable access to GPS, and even if they did, the space in a warehouse is limited, and the navigational accuracy needs to be down to a few inches not a few metres. The drones are integrated with ScanMan scanning technology


A picture of one of DroneScan’s prototypes.

DroneScan is a software company, which means that it plugs its software into existing drone infrastructure. “Our system is ready-to-go, being part of the BYOD ecosystem (?Bring your own drone?) it bolts on to existing drone platforms and advanced indoor navigation systems,” Jasper explains.

DroneScan works out the price-point on what it calls a fair-value bases. “We have switched to an annuity income rather than an up-front model. Our turnover halved the first year we did this, but we are hoping it will reap benefits in the long run,” Pons says.

“It’s very much a startup world at the moment, most startups are still focused on outdoors, which is an over-saturated and soon to be over regulated space,” he explains.

Indoor is the new drone space. In the absence of indoor GPS we are lagging behind on indoor navigation systems, there are only a few startups working on indoor platforms, and it’s a race to see whose is ready first. We look forward to an explosion in indoor applications of drones.

Thinking about drones and logistics, the first image that comes to mind is probably an army of Amazon drones delivering pizza, flowers, apparel and gadgets. The reality — at least according to Pons– looks a bit less sci-fi but all so more practical. Interestingly, indoor drones are where the next big innovation is going to happen says Pons.

In a whitepaper, Pons shares his predictions of the future of indoor drones:

Drone stock-counting services will be on-call. They will come in with their equipment on a weekend, download your warehouse layout, scan all the items in your warehouse and give you a report on the Monday morning for doing your stock adjustments.

Pons is the main brain behind this tech, which he used his own wallet to build, but was lucky enough to get match grant funding from South Africa’s Support Programme for Industrial Innovation. He’s not disclosing any figures.

“We have interest from DHL to perform their quarterly stock counts on large warehouses (50 000 scans) and believe we can save them R50 000 one weekend’s worth of labour costs,” says Pons. The startup furthermore wants to service UPS, FedEX and large manufacturers with large warehouses.

He also notes that DroneScan is in talk with other startups in a similar field abroad. Pons details that “Another technology startup in San Francisco is interested in using pairing their vision-navigation drone technology with our barcode technology.”

Read more: How SA’s SteadiDrone is bringing awesome flying ‘copters to the world

If not building drones and software, he’s hacking existing ones. Asked about his life as an entrepreneur, Pons explains that he has the luxury of working for a corporate while managing his own startup. “I am in a unique situation since I still consult to corporates to keep my hand in, and have a desk there, but can come and go as I please. The best part of being an entrepreneur over an employee I would have to say is definitely afternoon sleeps!”

Jacques Coetzee: Staff Reporter


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