Jeff Bezos shocked the world last December when he unveiled Amazon’s futuristic plan to use drones for deliveries.
A West Coast startup is creating similar excitement with its innovative plan to use drones as RFID readers. ADASA Inc., which emerged from stealth mode this summer, expects its drone “flying robot” readers to be commercially available in June.
ADASA is targeting the retail market, where the unmanned flying robots would compete with fixed and handheld readers and potentially revolutionize the way that RFID is deployed.
“I’m sure it’s hard for some to take the idea of drones counting retail inventory seriously, but I wouldn’t dismiss it too quickly,” says Scot Stelter, senior vice president of the RFID and Internet of Things practice at ChainLink Research.
It’s not the first time that drones have functioned as RFID readers. A non-profit group in Kenya uses RFID readers on drones to track endangered rhinos.
“Our flying robot answers a market need for low cost inventory readings,” says ADASA founder Clarke McAllister. “A flying robot can automatically position itself into thousands of different vantage points all over the store, looking into racks and display shelves, hovering over rounders or soaring over acres of goods. After reading the tag, it calculates where everything is in the store.”
ADASA is seeking partnerships with solution providers and retailers willing to test the concept in a pilot setting. Although the concept is still in the lab stage, McAllister anticipates clearing any remaining hurdles within six months to be ready for commercialization next year.
McAllister says that research conducted by ADASA indicates that flying robots provide a far superior value proposition than both fixed and handheld readers.
“We’ve done research that compares the sales uplift achieved per dollar spent on both fixed and handheld RFID tag reading systems over a five-year life of a reader,” he says.
“We saw that a bunch of fixed readers don’t offer much improvement over the labor intensive hand held readers. But we do see that there is a quantum leap in value when you start using flying robots.”
Although McAllister wouldn’t share specific details of the research, Stelter says that “RFID-equipped drones would require little labor compared to handhelds, providing a compelling economic argument.”
While ADASA has not yet conducted pilots, McAllister is confident that the state-of-the-art antenna solution included on the product will yield read rates of 99 percent or higher, helping retailers to rapidly deploy omni-channel selling strategies.
The solution will likely be marketed to retailers in two ways. Retailers could opt to purchase the flying robots individually, or partner with a systems integrator utilizing a software as a service approach, where retailers pay only for the data downloaded from the devices. The devices would be operated at night once a store has closed, providing fresh inventory data each morning.
ADASA is partnering with Cambridge, Mass.-based Panoptes, a provider of automatic navigation, collision avoidance and safe indoor flight technology. Panoptes is located in the same building where RFID module provider ThingMagic was founded.
“The team at Panoptes has created a sensory platform that can be used to sense and avoid collisions and also to discover where it is and create maps,” says McAllister. “We are harnessing that capability and combining it with our strength in RFID to make our flying robot a reality.”
The flying robot relies on built-in sonar to identify obstacles such as people, lighting poles and wires, and merchandise that might be hanging within a store. McAllister notes that the flying device does not carry a camera, a major difference between the product and traditional drones.
The flying robot solution has been under development for two years. The idea surfaced during an informal discussion with Macy’s senior vice president of logistics Pam Sweeney, who floated the concept of someday achieving “push button inventory.”
“I don’t know if either one of us knew what she meant by the term, but it’s a challenge that ADASA has been working on every day since,” says McAllister.
Pricing specifications for the flying robot reader solution have not been released. ADASA is seeking venture partners to fund rapid production next year. ADASA is a member of RAIN, the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, a state-backed economic development initiative in Eugene, Ore.
“Flying drones have no problem with heights that would make wheeled drones impractical,” says Stelter. “They feature pretty sophisticated mapping and anti-collision capabilities to enable repeatability and ensure safety, and there continues to be a lot of R&D momentum in that area. There’s a lot of field testing ahead, but none of the objections seem insurmountable.”