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Tesco Deploys Tag-Reading Robot at Five Stores to Track F&F Clothing

The global retailer is one of a half-dozen companies trialing RFspot's robotic RFID reading solution to identify which goods are at what location throughout sales floors and storerooms.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 04, 2015

Global retailer Tesco Stores Ltd. is trialing an indoor mapping and analytics robotic system using radio frequency identification at its fashion departments in five U.K. stores, tracking its F&F brand garments to determine whether the technology can improve efficiency and inventory visibility. The deployment involves robotic machines that roam through a store's clothing department, so that onboard RFID readers can perform inventory counts by reading each garment's passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID tag. The robotic system and service is being provided by Silicon Valley technology company RFspot, which reports that a half-dozen other retailers, globally, are carrying out similar pilots.

More than a year ago, F&F began looking into ways to identify the locations of goods in stores using an automated system, and came across the technology offered by RFspot, according to Danielle Dawson, F&F's RFID project manager. F&F is already RFID-tagging all of its merchandise sold at Tesco's network of 525 stores throughout the United Kingdom.

RFspot's robots have built-in RFID technology that can take inventory by reading passive UHF EPC Gen 2 RFID tags attached to merchandise.
"It's exciting to be pioneering this technology with RFspot," says Richard Collins, the CEO of F&F Tesco, "to see how we can use it within F&F to enhance our customer shopping experience, and also to clearly understand where we can use this within the rest of the store."

Tesco store personnel can read those tags via reader portals or handheld units, but with the RFspot solution, the same data can be collected more efficiently and more often, with little human intervention. The technology is designed to eliminate the mundane task of using a handheld to conduct inventory counts, explains Andrew Gold, RFspot's founder and CEO, and to instead capture reliable inventory data automatically. He says the robot reduces the time required for reading tags for inventory-tracking purposes, from seven hours using a handheld reader down to about one hour with the robot.

Each machine comes with a variety of vision-based sensors that can identify a robot's location within the store. F&F is trialing several versions of the robots, including multiple reader configurations. RFspot employs UHF RFID readers from all major reader providers, Gold says, though he declines to name which models are being used for F&F's robots. RFspot selects the reader best supported by the retailer. Each robot also comes with multiple antenna arrays to enable the interrogation of tags at all angles around the machine, from 6 inches above the floor to 12 feet above the floor.

With the F&F trial, the robot navigates through each of the five stores' back rooms and sales floors multiple times a week, reading tags and collecting location data as it goes. The path it will take is stored on the machine's on-board database. Because that computer stores such data as previous and expected read results at each location, it can be programmed to identify discrepancies and alter its own route to circle through an area a second time, or to approach it from a different angle, in order to ensure that tag reads are not missed. The robots also can be programmed to move through a high-density area twice.

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