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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

Each afternoon at 2 pm, as workers are changing shifts, and again around 10 pm, when the day's winds and dust have settled and most workers are no longer in the yard, Exponent will launch the drone onsite, which will have a preset flight path, speed and altitude. During that flight, which is expected to last for a total of only five to six minutes, the drone will pass over the tags and read each tag's ID. The drone's tablet will combine that ID with its own GPS location data, and then forward that information back via a cellular connection.

Each Power 400 tag also contains a passive UHF RFID inlay complying with the EPC Gen 2 specification. When the bundles are first tagged, the staff will employ an Intermec handheld reader to collect data about the bundle, such as where the products were produced, the grade of steel used during manufacture and other details. This information is encoded to the Power 400 tag's passive UHF inlay's 1 kilobit of memory. The passive tag can then be read in the event of exceptions, such as an individual in the yard wishing to read details regarding a bundle in front of him or her.

The active tag transmits its own unique ID, which the drone captures at a distance of 15 to 20 meters (49 to 66 feet). The GPS technology built into the tablet computer installed on the drone can pinpoint its location to within about 4 meters (13 feet). When sales or yard workers wish to locate a specific bundle, they can access the Exponent software, input the description, view the location data displayed on a map of the yard, and read the data written to the passive tag. They can also view how many times it was read, in order to determine how long the item has been in the yard.

The software not only spares workers time they would otherwise spend searching for bundles, but also provides historical data. For instance, Khan says, the company will be able to view which types of bundles are sold most quickly—and, as a result, better manage the locations of goods within the yard, with less frequently shipped items stored farther from the gate, and those sold more often located near the gate where they can easily be accessed.

Beginning on Oct. 15, the yard will begin tagging 1,000 new bundles each month until reaching a total of all 10,000 bundles (the yard's full capacity). It may then expand the system's use to include its other, larger yards. In addition, Age Steel is considering adding functionality to track workers and forklift data, by installing a Link Gateway reader on each forklift, as well as Power 400 tags on staff badges, so that the firm can track who moved which item, and where, and thereby offer bonuses to those achieving the highest efficiency ratings.

Siddiqui predicts "faster location of inventory, which will speed up the time it takes us to process an order, as the UAV will provide daily inventory checks. Less time will be taken trying to locate a particular item, and thus more stock can be processed with the same resources." Additionally, he says, his company hopes to be able to more accurately assess "which products and customers are taking us longer to process and why," based on the collection of inventory data indicating when a product is received and then shipped out. "This level of business intelligence will lead to further improvements in our processes, leading to more savings," he states. "We hope to see operational cost savings through less usage of our yard-handling equipment—for fuel, maintenance, wear and tear—as fewer stock movements will be required to process each order."

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