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In-Floor RFID Tags to Navigate Robots

A German company is marketing a flooring underlayment with embedded tags for guiding robots that transport objects and people or clean floors.
By Rhea Wessel
Current robotic cleaning systems frequently use infrared sensors or GPS for navigation, but those technologies are costly and GPS signals are often hard to receive within a building. In addition, such systems are often unable to achieve 100 percent coverage of a surface due to trashcans and other obstacles. In June 2005, Vorwerk announced the creation of its own Smart Carpet System, a robotic vacuum system equipped with an RFID interrogator that navigates floor spaces by reading a grid pattern of passive tags integrated into a carpet (see Sweeping RFID Under the Rug).

The family-owned company would not say how much the smart-floor system will sell for, though it did indicate buyers of a large fleet of robots might receive a quantity discount. The smart-floor underlayment alone (excluding robots and system software) may be sold for about 13 euros ($16) per square meter. According to Hanelt, other non-RFID underlayments can sell for 5 to 15 euros ($6 to $18).

Vorwerk's RFID-enabled underlayment is a result of a "thinking carpet" research project the company began in 2003 with chip manufacturer Infineon Technologies. At present, the underlayment contains Infineon RFID microchips, but Vorwerk has the option to use chips from other vendors, as well.

Vorwerk expects to sell the system to building managers who oversee hospitals, nursing homes or other facilities where the locations of objects and/or people need to be tracked. Whole fleets of robots or robot-controlled carts or wheelchairs could move goods or people around, navigated by the RFID tags embedded in underlayment installed throughout the building. For example, the smart-floor could control the automated transport of empty beds to a cleaning station.

"We have had a lot of interest from facility management firms that want to improve the quality of their work. They want to know exactly which cleaning work has been done, and which has not," said Hanelt.

The smart-floor system also offers interesting design possibilities for high-tech buildings. The number of tags per square meter can be changed on a custom basis to accommodate various designs or purposes.

"The additional use of the floor surface area in buildings has been, at best, confined to ventilation, heating and hiding cables and electrical outlets. With the smart-floor, that area is now going to be given a whole new technical functionality," says Johannes Schulte, Vorwerk's chairman of executive management.

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