Let’s look at three instances related to application of drones in recent timeline…
1) Domino’s made headlines back in 2016 as it tried to disrupt the traditional delivery methods and unveiled its new drone delivery trial to the pizza consumers in New Zealand.
2) Following suit, many brands stepped up in the market with their drone delivery system and Amazon was amongst them that was granted patent in 2017 and FAA approval in 2020 for its ground-based mobile drone fulfilment Prime Air which delivers packages up to 5 pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones.
3) Walmart announced in 2020 that it’s exploring the use of drone to safely and conveniently deliver items to consumers. The US retail giant teamed up with Zipline to launch a first-of-its-kind drone delivery operation in the US for on-demand deliveries of select health and wellness products. The notable thing is that Walmart intends to expand the use of drone in other products too.
Drones have graduated from just being in use for surveillanc purpose to mark their presence in the businesses of delivery, albeit it’s still in trial phase. But, when it comes to fashion industry that has a huge and complex supply chain, drones seem to be missing on the list with no clear example of commercial implementation! One of the early adapters of drones or, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), in the fashion industry was Dolce & Gabbana that sent a message to the industry that fashion shows are not all about the clothes as it used drones to show its handbags collection in a fashion show back in 2018. And….? That’s it.
So, why is it that fashion retail industry is still refraining from conducting more serious trials of drones in areas such as merchandise delivery; inventory management; retail stores security; and consumers’ motion tracking to store data of their behaviour?
Here is how drones can be useful in fashion industry…
Fashion merchandise delivery: Post-pandemic world is all about new norms in every aspect of life and business. Especially, fashion business has seemingly changed a lot with the emergence of e-commerce that had been already gaining momentum for last few years and is now propelled by COVID-19 as consumers are still being cautious when it comes to visiting physical stores. Adding to this is the fact that the consumers are preferably spending money on those brands that have quickly adapted to the changing business landscape, giving new experiences to shoppers, using technology in the best way they can, and delivering products to their doorsteps safely and quickly.
Till today, the process/system of the delivery of an apparel item to the consumer has been manual but with proper use of drone, instead of a person hand-carrying each box to a door, the brands can actually organise the overall structure of such delivery process quite differently. Brands can either have one land vehicle with several other drones or UAVs that are doing deliveries autonomously, or they can have one central hub connected to a warehouse and this hub can deliver the product within several kilometres to smaller delivery centres.
Inventory management assistance: Evolving consumers’ expectations have intensified competition for supply chain solution providers and the competitive advantage is up for grabs for all, only if they tighten up inventory and category management systems with the use of technology. Drone can be a great enabler here for a seamless offline as well as online experience.
The rise of e-commerce over the years has resulted in massive number of warehouses across the globe and inventory management in such warehouses is time and resource-intensive. According to various studies, warehousing accumulates 30 per cent of all the logistical costs and not just that, over 90 per cent of the inventory of a company remains stationary in warehouses. Fully autonomous solutions with drones at the warehouse centre may become a necessary addition to have ‘smart inventory management’ that can provide financial and safety benefits.
Drones’ ability to fly, hover and reach difficult locations with ease makes them valuable in a warehouse environment. But the true potential of warehouse drones is the value they provide by acting as a platform that adds mobility to a host of other technologies – like RFID scanners, sensors, AI and machine learning. Besides, the adoption of drones in warehouses and storage facilities allows for a reduction in human intervention needed at each location, significantly cutting costs for retailers. As both Walmart and Amazon – with a collective figure of over 270 distribution centres in the US alone – now have drones in their portfolio, they can dramatically influence the efficiency of each centre and facility that includes fashion products.
Motion tracking of consumers for insights: Flying above a retail location, a drone can easily be used to collect data to further measure the effectiveness of signage, the positioning of entrances and the impact of consumers’ traffic. It’s a widely accepted fact that strongest retail strategies are those which are built using foundation of consumers’ insights and that’s a key area for omnichannel fashion players. Fashion retailers have been tracking consumers’ footfall in the stores but the use of drones would allow them track their motion more effectively inside the store and can give brands real-time data. A drone can cover precisely every corner of a store to figure out all degrees of freedom of a shopper and help brands count on buying behaviour of customers.
What’s ahead for drones in fashion sector?
Drones are still seen as quite ‘futuristic’ across industries and fashion is no exception. Without a doubt, there are valid reasons behind this belief. As far as warehouse operations are concerned, there are surely no legal restrictions for the companies, but the challenge arises when it has to follow the rules of sky – such as for delivery of products. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the USA does ask drone companies to abide by certain laws and rules, failing which their licence can be cancelled. And, the same sort of government-imposed rules are followed in EU countries and other regions where drones are allowed. Despite these countries being huge fashion retail markets, the fashion brands refrain themselves from using a drone service for their products’ delivery, at least as of now. But seeing the quick approval being granted to companies across sectors by the government in various countries, including India where it recently got approved for recording live cricket matches, the future of drones seems to be bright.
Secondly, in warehouse centre, drones sometimes may face visibility and navigation problems as the centres have diverse structural complexities, geographical locations and a variety of inventory items. However, improvements in computer vision integrated with neural networks can solve these visibility problems in drones of the future.