RFID breakthrough: meet the drone stock controller

30 August 2017

Credit: RFly | MIT News

Suggesting a strong future for retail operations, this drone can safely and speedily read RFID tags throughout large warehouses, with more reliability than current stock control methods.

Radio frequency ID tags were supposed to revolutionise supply chain management. The cheap, battery-free tags, which receive power wirelessly from scanners and then broadcast identifying numbers, enable warehouse managers to log inventory much more efficiently than they could by reading box numbers and recording them manually.

Nowadays, however, the sheer scale of retail operations makes even radio frequency ID (RFID) scanning inefficient. Walmart, for instance, reported that in 2013 it lost $3 billion in revenue because of mismatches between its inventory records and its stock. In spite of the implementation of RFID technology, it can still take a single large retail store three months to perform a complete inventory review, which means that mismatches often go undiscovered until they are exposed by a customer request.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have provided an answer to such current technological innovations. The drones in question identify RFID tags’ locations with an average margin of error of about 19 centimetres. The experts envision that alongside offering continuous stock monitoring, to prevent inventory mismatches, the technol http:// ogy could also locate individual items so that employees can quickly and reliably meet customer requests.

The central challenge in designing the system was that, with the current state of autonomous navigation, the only drones safe enough to fly within close range of humans are small, lightweight drones with plastic rotors, which would not cause injuries in the event of a collision. The problem being that those drones are too small to carry RFID readers with a range of more than a few centimetres.

The researchers met this challenge by using the drones to relay signals emitted by a standard RFID reader. This not only solves the safety problem but also means that drones could be deployed with existing RFID inventory systems, without the need for new tags, readers, or reader software.

Said Fadel Adib, the Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences: “Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies among its warehouses. In 2016, the U.S. National Retail Federation reported that shrinkage (loss of items in retail stores) averaged around $45.2 billion annually. By enabling drones to find and localise items and equipment, this research will provide a fundamental technological advancement for solving these problems.”

The MIT researchers describe their system, dubbed RFly, in a paper they presented at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Data Communications.

For more information, visit this link from MIT News.

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