Night at the warehouse

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Verity drone in a warehouse (Picture: Scott Gibbard / ETH Zurich)
Verity drone in a warehouse (Picture: Scott Gibbard / ETH Zurich)

ETH Zurich spinoff, Verity AG deploys a new fleet of drones primed to transform warehouse operations and support more sustainable supply chains. Demonstrating the value of fundamental research and its potential for a real-world impact.

Warehouse distribution centers are a hub of activity as workers offload pallets and shift valuable, sometimes perishable, inventory from one place to the next. At the end of the day, when the incessant beeping of forklifts quiet and warehouse workers head home, Verity’s drone fleet buzzes to life. Packing its own lighting, software, and cameras, the Verity "night crew" navigates the floor to ceiling industrial shelves autonomously scanning barcodes and verifying digital inventory records.

Born in the lab, bred on Broadway

Verity’s been pulling the night shift since it opened its doors in 2014. The company co-founded by ETH Zurich Professor Raffaello D’Andrea is built upon fundamental research that spun out his lab in the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control. The spinoff quickly became a global leader in autonomous indoor drone systems - proving the robustness of their technologies on the world’s stage. Verity first emerged on the live events scene as "Verity Studios", quickly solidifying their reputation for safety and reliability. In the meantime, their warehouse automation solution was being developed in stealth mode, eventually launching in 2020.

"While Verity’s technology has certainly advanced beyond the lab, much of it originates with our basic research," says Co-founder and CTO, Markus Hehn. Hehn developed learning algorithms during his doctoral work at ETH Zurich that made it possible for quadcopters to learn to fly a slalom course and play catch with a pendulum. Today these systems enable the drones at Verity to learn how to navigate autonomously. Likewise, research from Verity Head of Product and ETH Alum Federico Augugliaro, on how to coordinate fleets of drones to carry out complex tasks such as flight assembled architecture and building a rope bridge, still influences many current aspects of Verity’s work.

Night after night, in live shows, Verity put the applications of its basic research to the test, flying more than 300,000 flights in 20 countries. The live events sector of their work took flight following a collaboration with Cirque du Soleil on the award-winning short film, "Sparked..." The dancing lampshades in Sparked inspired the later Lucie drones. The "Lucies" dazzled live audiences with spectacular lightshows that took place directly over the heads of large audiences, and some of the world’s top performers such as Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway musical, Paramour, Metallica’s WorldWired tour, and Celine Dion’s Courage World Tour.

Transforming operations and reducing CO2

"The people who work at Verity want to be a part of something that has never been done before - to solve societal problems and to create an impact in society," says Raffaello D’Andrea. He concedes that the Verity story and its success is really about the team of engineers, data scientists, and designers that it attracts. "Many are ETH Alumni plucked straight from the lab," he says. Demonstrating their ability to reliably deploy core technologies in the field to solve "challenges" is one quality that makes the Verity team successful. With almost 100 patents to its name, the team seemed to view the pandemic like just another challenge. It offered time and opportunity to accelerate their industry focus just when e-commerce was skyrocketing.

In 2021, after successfully piloting the solution with their first two clients, they are rolling out drone fleets to the vast distribution and warehouse expanses of the Danish transport and logistics company, DSV, and in IKEA stores. Their mission - to liberate companies from the time consuming and error prone task of conducting manual inventories. The drone fleets enable companies to reduce the costs associated with cycle counting and misplaced stocks, while at the same time improving the quality of their operations. Valuable human resources too could be leveraged in ways that offer companies more of a strategic benefit. The impact of drone fleets goes far beyond inventory. The new tech primes the industry for transformation, both in terms of the efficiency and sustainability of warehouse operations and related supply chains. Verity’s order books are filling quickly, with most of its 2022 capacity already reserved.

As scientists and engineers, the Verity team wanted to measure their impact with a study. The findings quantify, at least to some degree, how automating warehouse processes with its drone fleet reduces CO2 emissions all along the supply chain. They report that introducing an indoor drone inventory process into a 100,000-pallet warehouse could result in an annual CO2 emissions savings equivalent to taking 5,000 cars off the road each year.

Marianne Lucien