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Researchers Tinker With Flying, Rolling RFID-Sensorized Robots

The team of engineers used off-the-shelf hardware and software to create small aerial and ground robots that could automatically read passive UHF sensors and install those sensors on hard-to-reach objects.
By Beth Bacheldor
Aug 10, 2015

A team of engineers has been studying how RFID-enabled robots could be employed to automatically measure a soil's moisture level, as well as monitor the physical health of bridges and other hard-to-access infrastructure. The group developed a prototype system comprising commercially available components, including passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID sensor tags, robots and ground control software (GCS) running on a laptop computer to plan the robots' missions, send them commands, and receive and display the data they collected. Last month, the group published their project findings in a paper titled "A New Vision for Smart Objects and the Internet of Things: Mobile Robots and Long-Range UHF RFID Sensor Tags," co-authored by Travis Deyle and Jennifer Wang, who work for Google, Erik Schluntz, and Brian Otis, an associate professor at the University of Washington.

The researchers began working on early prototypes in 2012, as they considered ways in which to experiment with Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. "We realized that sensorized RFID tags coupled with robots were a compelling approach to the Internet of Things," Deyle says. RFID tags work well for a lot of applications, since they are extremely low-cost, can be coupled with almost any sensor and have virtually limitless lifetimes. "But they still have read-range constraints and the reader needs to be in close proximity to read them," he explains. "This was ideally matched to mobile robots carrying RFID readers; the robot could help deploy and read the sensor tags in remote, hard-to-reach locations."

The drone captured data from a Farsens RFID moisture sensor installed in a building's wooden framework.
Deyle, Wang, Schluntz, Otis and several others—whom Deyle says are all avid technology hobbyists, especially in robotics, RFID and computer science—spend a lot of their spare time building drones and wireless sensors powered by ambient RF signals. "We had been tinkering with the idea for several years," he states. "The project really came together last year, when 3D Robotics released their IRIS+ Drone and Farsens released their sensor tags. With commercial off-the-shelf components readily available, integration was rather straightforward. I think it took us a few weeks' spare time to get everything up and running."

Once the plan was in place, Deyle says, it took only a few weeks' time to construct the robots and set up the tests, which were conducted within just a few days. The test site was an open grassy field, 40 meters by 40 meters (131 feet by 131 feet) in size, and the flying area was free of obstructions taller than 1.5 feet. During the tests, the wind speed was less than 4 miles per hour.

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