RFID Talk Blog

German scientists to test drones as RFID readers

There is more evidence that flying drones might someday supplant fixed and handheld RFID readers while making inventory taking a seamless event.

In August, RFID 24-7 wrote about a West Coast startup called ADASA that plans to commercialize its drone RFID reader solution sometime next year.

Now, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Germany envision a day in the not-too-distant-future when “inventory assistants,” or autonomous robots, fly through warehouses to provide real-time inventory visibility.

Drones as RFID readers

A team of German scientists plan to pilot a solution that uses drones as RFID readers.

Given that driverless transportation systems already exist, scientists at the the Fraunhofer Institute figure a drone system could work similarly.

The goal of the InventAIRy Project is to design and deploy autonomous flying robots that are capable of independently navigating and taking inventory by tracking barcodes and RFID tags. The drones would be able to localize objects both in the warehouses and in external areas like loading docks. The drones would be programmed to avoid ground-based obstructions and can move in any direction and see into hard-to-reach places, such as tall storage shelves.

Developers hope to begin a pilot with a partially automated flight by mid 2015. In this phase, a robot equipped with the identification technology will hover – without having to be controlled via remote operation – at one position and gather data.

Marco Freund is a certified logistics specialist who heads up the InventAIRy Project at the Fraunhofer Institute. His vision for an optimized inventory system includes a supervisor sitting at a desk who, at the press of a button, can inspect inventories or search for a specific item without incurring any staffing or logistics costs.

In order for the solution to become a reality, Freund and his fellow scientists engineered a “dynamically animated records system” that uniquely distinguishes itself from other RFID reader solutions currently in use.

“Goods and pallets can already be tracked automatically via RFID,” says Freund. “In doing so, the antennas that the chips read out are permanently mounted to the shelf. The chips are located on the products and are recorded if they pass the readout device. With InventAIRy, exactly the opposite applies; radio chips remain in their fixed position, and the antenna is moved by its integration into a flying robot.”

Freund says that the individual service robot, as an intelligent mobile object, is able to detect how the warehouse is configured using motion and camera sensors, and can therefore orient itself within the warehouse. GPS determines its position outside. In addition, the robot records the stored items in terms of content. The scientists accomplish this with the aid of optical sensors or radio sensors.

“Robustly designed, lightweight flying robots can reliably recognize their surroundings, as well as intelligent software for their route planning and coordination,” says Freund. “To ensure this solution is also appealing to small and medium-sized enterprises, we intentionally dispensed with the installation of an expensive local infrastructure that the robots can use to orient themselves.”

Instead, the researchers intend to accomplish this with the aid of intelligent algorithms, which would allow the drones to prepare maps of the warehouse on a fully automated basis, and independently modify them if there are any changes. The drones would rely on ultrasound sensors, 3D cameras, and laser scanners.

 

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