Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have developed a drone-enabled system, RFly, capable of flying around crowded warehouses to monitor inventory.
First introduced back in 1983, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags remain a vital tool in a number of industries. These tags store information digitally, such as ID numbers, that can then be collected by scanners that read them.
Although the utility of RFID tags has stretched to preventing theft and counterfeiting of items and to allow for self-service shopping, inventory management has always been the area that provides the most obvious applications. Warehouse managers can use RFID tags to keep track of stock in a way that saves time and resources when compared to a standard barcode system.
Large retailers need a smarter solution
Even with RFID technology, the challenge posed by huge storage spaces requires something smarter. It can take months to perform a complete inventory assessment. Inaccuracies between records and actual stock reportedly cost Walmart $3 billion in 2013, so finding a solution to the problem of scale is a priority for many.
Spotting the need for a more dynamic and proactive inventory management system, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed drones that can read RFID tags from tens of meters away.
With accuracy to the nearest 19 centimeters, large retail warehouses and military stores could now benefit from continuous monitoring that will prevent errors, flag up the location of individual items and help fulfill orders with more speed. The drone technology has been named RFly by its creators at the MIT Media Lab.
The buzz around RFly
Led by assistant professor of Media Arts and Sciences, Fadel Adib, the research team had to overcome two major challenges in devising an aerial system to safely and efficiently buzz around a warehouse.
The first was safety. The team decided to use small, plastic drones that wouldn’t represent a threat in the case of a collision with a warehouse worker. Unfortunately, these smaller drones were not powerful enough to carry a RFID reader with them. Instead, an ingenious solution allows the drones to act as the medium for the reader, relaying its signals back and forth over a distance as large as the drone network allows.
“Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies among its warehouses,” says Adib. “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.”
As it stands, RFly requires human supervision and operation. But smarter, smaller drones capable of careful indoor flight and obstacle avoidance already taking the consumer market by storm. It seems a matter of time before they make the jump to commercial applications and inventory checks are truly autonomous.