This drone can pinpoint a specific package in a giant warehouse

Manually scanning inventory in a giant warehouse is extremely time-consuming and prone to mistakes. But with a new system created by scientists from the MIT Media Lab, drones might one day do the work for us. And even better, they’ll do it more efficiently and accurately.

A prototype created by the scientists can catalogue items instantly as the drones fly up and down the aisles. They called the new system RFly, which involves two novel features: A custom-built circuit board that can be mounted on many existing indoor drones, and an algorithm that can accurately locate an item.

To develop the new system, the team of MIT researchers, led by Fadel Adib, started by examining the limitations of a widely-used warehouse management system: RFID (radio-frequency identification). It works by attaching unique wireless tags to every package. The tags contain electronically stored information which can be read by an RFID scanner. But the biggest problem with this system is that a worker has to manually hold the scanner close to a package to pick up the signal, making it a laborious process. And there are often signal interferences, which can introduce errors.

To solve these limitations, MIT scientists created a relay system in which the drone serves as a relay between the tags and the scanner. The drone magnifies the signals from the tags so that the scanner can receive the information from as far as 50 meters.

The other new feature is the localization algorithm. As the drone flies, it captures the tag’s responses from different locations along the path. The system then processes these spatial measurements to determine the location of the item.

Scientists say that this new system can “seamlessly integrate with a deployed RFID infrastructure.” It can also be used for personal drones, to search your home to find things like missing keys.

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