Radio frequency ID tags were supposed to revolutionize supply chain management. The dirt-cheap, battery-free tags, which receive power wirelessly from scanners and then broadcast identifying numbers, enable warehouse managers to log inventory much more efficiently than they could by reading box numbers and recording them manually.
But the scale of modern retail operations makes even radio frequency ID (RFID) scanning inefficient. Walmart, for instance, reported that in 2013 it lost $3 billion in revenue because of mismatches between its inventory records and its stock. Even with RFID technology, it can take a single large retail store three months to perform a complete inventory review, which means that mismatches often go undiscovered until exposed by a customer request.
MIT researchers have now developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags from tens of meters away while identifying the tags’ locations with an average error of about 19 centimeters. The researchers envision that the system could be used in large warehouses for both continuous monitoring, to prevent inventory mismatches, and location of individual items, so that employees can rapidly and reliably meet customer requests.
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