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RFID-Reading Drone Tracks Structural Steel Products in Storage Yard

Dubai-based Age Steel is using an airborne RFID reader to inventory and locate tagged bundles of pipes, plates and other items stored in its yard.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 26, 2014

Age Steel, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) company that operates multiple steel yards in Dubai, has taken radio frequency identification technology to new heights, through its use of an RFID reader mounted on a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly called a drone. The Steel Yard Autonomous Tracking solution, provided by UAE technology services startup Exponent Technology Services, enables Age Steel to quickly and accurately track the locations of pipes, plates and other metal products stored onsite.

Age Steel imports structural steel products, such as pipes, plates, coils, angles and hot-rolled bars, and sells them for use on construction projects throughout the Middle East. The company operates three yards in Dubai and a fourth in Saudi Arabia, and the steel pieces at each location are stored in bundles. A staff member writes each bundle's ID number in chalk on its label. After that, approximately twice a year, personnel would conduct an inventory count of what was stored within each yard. If a bundle was purchased and needed to be picked and shipped from one of the yards, workers at that location had to walk around the yard manually searching for it. According to the company, this could be a time-consuming and highly unpleasant process, since temperatures in the yards typically reach 45 to 50 degrees Celsius (113 degrees to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). If the product could not be located, Age Steel would have to go to one of its own local competitors and buy the same item from them at an elevated price—meaning that there would typically be no profit, or even a loss in the sale, if the firm failed to negotiate a replacement.

An RFID-equipped drone flies over one of Age Steel's storage yards.
"We have seen a large upswing in business over the last 15 months, and the quantity of stock that is moving through our yards has increased dramatically," explains Raed Siddiqui, Age Steel's director. "The yard itself is in a state of expansion, and the ability to locate particular items of stock in a timely and efficient manner was becoming a challenge." He adds that "the increased pressure on our logistics team to receive stock swiftly has created challenges in our ability to track the tens of thousands of bundles of steel that are transiting our yard at any point of time."

The company sought a solution from Exponent, which attached passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to the bundles and then had an Age Steel staff member walk through the yard equipped with a handheld reader. But after trying that option, Age Steel deemed it too time-consuming.

Exponent Technology Services began searching for a better alternative, says Asam Khan, Exponent's chief operating officer. It realized that it required an automated way in which to collect RFID tag-read data within the yard. The firm was launched two years ago to provide software services, and became interested in RFID after seeing the data it could provide to one of its customers in the Chicago area when tracking waste that the company hauled. Exponent then provided an RFID solution for an aviation parts supplier in Dubai that also had a challenging RFID reading environment, including the presence of metal and high temperatures.

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