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Using drones in large warehouses to prevent inventory mismatches

The technology comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and it could save retailers billions lost through faulty inventory records. The drones have been equipped to read radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags from tens of meters away while identifying the tags’ locations. The equipped drone system has the potential to be used in large warehouses in order to prevent inventory mismatches and locate individual items.

Although RFID tags were intended to revolutionize supply chain management, in practice these battery-free tags, which receive power wirelessly from scanners to broadcast identifying numbers, have often proved unreliable. This leads to errors with supply chain inventory management. To help overcome this, drones can access the tags in different locales more effectively than a person wandering around with a hand-held scanner. Moreover, it can take weeks to undertake an inventory review of a major retail warehouse when undertaken by people (for instance, the smallest Walmart warehouse is larger than 17 football fields).

Drones thus win in terms of accuracy and speed. The technologists developed a drone-equipped system that allows small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags from tens of meters away. In practice the drones were found to identify the tags’ locations with an average error of about 19 centimeters.

The types of drones used are small, lightweight drones with plastic rotors and they are called RFly’s. These are considered safe enough not to significantly injure a human working in the warehouse area. The key innovation with the drones is a new relay technology which can seamlessly integrate with a deployed RFID infrastructure.

In terms of economic benefits, Fadel Adib, who is the Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, said that 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.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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