Ikea announced a new company milestone last week—100 drones tasked with stock inventory responsibilities are now buzzing around its European warehouses during store off-hours. The iconic home furnishing giant first revealed its partnership with the indoor drone fleet developer Verity in 2020. The duo initially deployed aerial workers in a handful of Switzerland locales, to self-described “great” results. Now, however, the drones can also be found in 16 locations across the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Slovenia, Croatia, and Belgium.
According to Ingka, the legal entity overseeing most Ikea locations, the drones help improve stock accuracy and maintain up-to-date item availability for both physical and online retail. At night and while locations are closed, the Verity drones take off from their charging stations to sweep warehouse pallets, capturing video, images, and even 3D depth scans of items at near-perfect accuracy. They then return to charging stations, and download the data for managers to review. In theory, their existence in the workplace provides a more ergonomic environment for the drones’ human co-workers, since it decreases the need for them to manually confirm each pallet of products. Watch a video of the branded blue-and-yellow drones in action below:
Verity was founded in 2014 by Raffaello D’Andrea around two years after Amazon acquired his previous tech company, Kiva Systems, for $775 million. Kiva was promptly renamed to Amazon Robotics, and provided the foundation for the retail empire’s ongoing automation efforts across its massive warehouse landscape—efforts which critics argue have eradicated human job opportunities. Verity has also provided drone fleets to companies like Samsung, DSV Transport, and Maersk.
As The Verge also noted on Monday, Ikea hasn’t limited their high-tech approaches to just drones. Previously, the company began experimenting with an automated racking system to eliminate the “majority” of a California location’s forklifts. Elsewhere, everyone from massive companies like Google, to smaller startups are attempting to bring commercial drones into their everyday ecosystems.
“Introducing drones and other advanced tools – such as, for example, robots for picking up goods – is a genuine win-win for everybody. It improves our co-workers’ wellbeing, lowers operational costs, and allows us to become more affordable and convenient for our customers,” Tolga Öncu, Head of Retail at Ingka, said in their announcement last week.
In a statement provided to PopSci via email, an Ikea spokesperson explained the drones allow human workers “to have more time to meet our customers on the shopfloor instead of tracking inventory manually.” When asked if these drones could eventually replace human labor, they explained that employees are still needed to review the fleets’ collected data. “As we embrace automation in many areas of our business, we are committed to do it responsibly and always take care of our co-workers,” they wrote.
If nothing else, their drones provide more concrete advancements than, say, locking oneself away in a Martian landscape simulator to help spur new furniture designs.
Updated with a statement from Ikea.