Study finds drones accurate for relay of RFID signals for inventory control

The scale of modern retail operations make radio frequency ID scanning inefficient with increasing numbers of lost revenue -- but drones may be able to help.
By Amy Wallace  |  Aug. 25, 2017 at 12:10 PM
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Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Researchers at MIT have developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read radio frequency ID tags from tens of meters away with better accuracy.

Radio frequency ID, or RFID, tags were originally expected to revolutionize supply chain management due to their low cost, battery-free design. RFIDs received power wirelessly from scanners and then broadcast identifying numbers to allow warehouse managers to log inventory more efficiently.

However, in recent years, the scale of modern retail operations has made RFID scanning inefficient with many retailers reporting significant financial losses due to mismatches between inventory records and stock.

"Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies among its warehouses," Fadel Adib, the Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, said in a press release.

"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 localize items and equipment, this research will provide a fundamental technological advancement for solving these problems."

Researchers have developed a system that allows small, safe aerial drones to read RFID tags from tens of meters away while identifying the tags' locations with an average error of roughly 19 centimeters.

The team overcame the problem of using very small drones with plastic rotors to prevent injury in case of a collision. But the small drones are too small to carry an RFID reader with a range of more than a few centimeters.

The researchers found a method of using the drones to relay signals emitted by a standard RFID reader, allowing for the more effective locating of tags.

The research was presented this week at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Data Communications.

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