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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

However, no one at the company had experience with UAVs, Khan says—not even as hobbyists. Therefore, he visited a local hobby shop to purchase a small drone, and attached an RFID reader to it to determine if he could fly the device over tags and capture their tag IDs. It worked well, he reports.

Throughout the next nine months, Exponent began developing software to create drone flight paths, and tested various passive UHF RFID tags and readers to ascertain which was the most effective. The company found, however, that active RFID tags could be more easily interrogated by a reader installed on a drone operating in a highly metallic environment.

Exponent Technology Services' Asam Khan
In May, Exponent and Age Steel tagged 1,000 bundles (selected to provide a representative sampling of items throughout the yard) in Age Steel's smallest yard with Omni-ID Power 400 tags, which operate at 433 MHz and employ a proprietary air-interface protocol. It then tracked them via two daily drone reads throughout one month, while comparing the results against those of 1,000 untagged bundles. The drone was equipped with an Omni-ID Link Gateway 433 MHz RFID tag reader, wired via a USB adapter to a tablet computer. The company found that while 300 of the untagged bundles went missing for at least some portion of that 30-day period, none of the tagged bundles were lost. What's more, Khan reports, the drone was able to read 1,000 tags spread across an area measuring 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) in size within five minutes, achieving a 98.2 percent accuracy.

"We agreed to the pilot with a fair dose of skepticism," Siddiqui says, "but were pleasantly surprised when it demonstrated the ability to consistently track the physical location of over 1,000 RFID tagged items with an accuracy rate of 98.2 percent."

The patent-pending solution that Exponent developed is now being installed at one of Age Steel's yards. Age Steel expects to take the deployment live on Oct. 15, with Exponent providing the inventory-management service, operating the drone and generating inventory location data and history for each bundle on a daily basis from its cloud-based software.

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