AI News, MIT Builds Drone-Based RFID Relay to Track Boxes in Warehouses

MIT Builds Drone-Based RFID Relay to Track Boxes in Warehouses

Boxes are everywhere: The United States Postal Service shipped 5.2 billion packages in 2016, while Amazon shipped 1 billion packages just for the holidays.

In recent years, they’ve begun using RFID tags to track boxes from warehouses to trucks to retail stores and then to customers’ homes.

Recently, researchers have begun to investigate other ways for these industries to trace items, including systems that can snap photos of labels or identify shipments by other visual cues.

team led by Fadel Adib, a principal investigator at MIT Media Lab, attached an RFID relay to a drone that he says could fly around and scan all the RFID tags on every box in a warehouse, and transmit that information back to a reader.

In telecommunications, relays are commonly used to boost signals from a cell tower to reach customers on the edge of a service area.

In their system, a tag transmits several signals in quick succession to the drone, and those signals arrive at different angles because the drone is flying around.

This makes it possible for software to compare the angle of arrival from multiple signals, similar to how an antenna array records multiple angles of the arrival for one signal.

Since all the processing to figure out the tag’s location is handled by software linked to the reader, the team needed a way to factor in the drone’s location when it took its angle-of-arrival measurements.

The group decided to attach an RFID tag to the drone, so the software could find the drone’s position when it was working out each tag’s location.

MIT figured out a better way for drones to use RFID technology

A research team at MIT has created a clever new way for drones to use RFID technology in warehouses for stock-keeping purposes.

The small tags, which are briefly activated by the radio frequency of a reader, have been adopted and used everywhere from pet microchips to optional implantable chips for company employees.

Despite RFID’s benefits, it has limitations: there’s no set RFID standard for tracking goods and “tag collision” can prevent readers from picking up signals from multiple tags at the same time.

Fixed RFID readers and reader antennas can only scan tags that pass through set thresholds, and hand-held readers require people on the floor to go out and manually scan items.

High boxes that a person would need a ladder or lift to access can be easily reached by a drone, drones can be programmed to independently navigate spaces, and they’re better at executing large-scale repetitive tasks — like taking inventory — than humans.

This means they have to be large enough to support the size and weight of the additional hardware, making them potentially hazardous if they crashed into a human, and relegating them to wide spaces.

Since relays are small, this means more compact drones with plastic parts can be used — ones that can fit in narrower spaces and don’t pose a danger of injuring people.

Drones relay RFID signals for inventory control

The dirt-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.

Even with RFID technology, it can take a single large retail store three months to perform a complete inventory review, which means that mismatches often go undiscovered until exposed by a customer request.

MIT researchers have now developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags from tens of meters away while identifying the tags’ locations with an average error of about 19 centimeters.

The researchers envision that the system could be used in large warehouses for both continuous monitoring, to prevent inventory mismatches, and location of individual items, so that employees can rapidly 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 wouldn’t cause injuries in the event of a collision.

By enabling drones to find and localize 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 this week at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Data Communications.

A drone alternates between relaying the reader’s signal to a tagged item and simply letting its own tag reflect the signal back, so that the reader can estimate the drone’s contribution to the total phase shift and remove it.

In experiments in the Media Lab that involved tagged objects, many of which were intentionally hidden to approximate the condition of merchandise heaped in piles on warehouse shelves, the system was able to localize the tags with 19-centimeter accuracy while extending the range of the reader tenfold in all directions, or one hundredfold cumulatively.

Have MIT Drones Solved a Billion-Dollar Warehouse Problem?

It’s wild to think that barcodes, the universal method for keeping track of inventory, first unrolled on the retail industry in the 1960s.

Although they only cost a few cents, are powered wirelessly, and can make the inventory-logging process vastly more efficient, the savings don’t add up because the work still requires humans to move through shelf after shelf, often in a massive warehouse, to manually read every object.

“Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies among its warehouses,” says Adib, who is a “Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor” at MIT, which also cited a loss by Walmart in 2013 of $3 billion in revenue over discrepancies between inventory records and actual stock.

The MIT research team developed an aerial drone system capable of reading RFID tags from tens of meters away and identifying the location of the package within a 19-centimeter radius of accuracy.

The drones don’t actually carry the RFID reader with them — Adib explains that this added weight basically caused the drone to crash — but rather, relays the signals emitted by the reader over larger distances.

Adib says the team is already getting a ton of attention from different parties, and for good reason, when you consider how in 2016, the U.S. National Retail Federation estimated that inventory shrinkage accounted for about $45.2 billion in annual losses among retailers.

Moreover, the fact that a job which once took potentially a year to do can now be accomplished in under a day could actually incentivize companies to keep their warehouses in the U.S., since it would help cut the costs of keeping those facilities working.

MIT Builds Drone-Based RFID Relay to Track Boxes in Warehouses

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