Mismatches between inventory records and stock have long plagued the retail industry. A system being developed by the MIT Media Lab that uses an aerial drone to read radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on product packaging, could provide one solution to this perennial problem.
Dubbed RFly, the system could also help to integrate warehouses and other storage facilities into digitized supply chains.
Erroneous inventory information causes costly problems such as phantom inventory; product shortages or excesses that arise when managers do not have an accurate account of items in stock. For information on MIT CTL research on the phantom inventory phenomenon see the Supply Chain @ MIT blog post Retail’s Phantom Inventory or the Ghosts of Christmas Past.
Using a drone-based wireless system to rapidly scan and locate stock items seems like an effective way to automate a task that is time-consuming and error-prone when carried out manually.
But there are several problems to overcome before such a solution can be introduced.
One is that when drones operate close to humans, only small, lightweight machines with plastic rotors can be used for safety reasons. But such small units are unable to carry the RFID readers required to make such a system viable.
The MIT researchers solved the problem by using the drones to relay signals emitted by a standard RFID reader. This solution also enables the system to be used in conjunction with existing RFID equipment. The relay solution raises some signal detection and processing issues, but the team came found ways to overcome these technical challenges.