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German Clothing Retailer Adler Gives RFID Robots a Spin

The company is among several retailers that are using MetraLabs' new Tory robotic system to automatically count inventory and record merchandise locations within its stores.
By Claire Swedberg

MetraLabs, founded in 2001, released a robot in 2007 to help customers locate goods within a store. That early version employed a 124 kHz low-frequency (LF) reader mounted to its underside and passive LF RFID tags installed on floors to navigate its way to a particular product. MetraLabs designed and built the reader itself, says Christian Reuther, the company's senior software architect. The tags, as well as laser- and camera-based sensors, provided navigation for the robot since each unique ID number encoded to a tag was linked in the software to a specific location, enabling the robot to use those IDs to understand where it was located at any given time. Each product name was linked to a particular location, and the robot knew the IDs of the floor-installed tags it expected to read while moving toward that spot.

By 2009, MetraLabs had enabled a robot to perform inventory tracking by building a UHF reader into it, and tested the system in a University of Tübingen laboratory, which assisted with the testing. However, Trabert says, there were not enough companies or organizations at that time that tagged items within their facilities to provide value for RFID-based inventory tracking. That has changed during the past five years, as large retailers are now tagging their goods or receiving tagged products from suppliers.

The Tory robot can accomplish two functions: using its built-in Impinj UHF RFID reader to count inventory, and utilizing its laser and camera sensors to locate specific products for shoppers. The UHF reader comes with a custom antenna array that MetraLabs developed "to yield high accuracy and read rates in typical retail scenarios—very tall and low shelves, stuffed boxes of merchandise, multi-path-propagation problems due to metal shelving," Trabert says. To determine the location of a specific product, a shopper would use Tory's touchscreen to input that item's name. The robot would look up that product's assigned location on the floor map stored in its memory, and then use its internal sensors and odometer to guide itself to that product's assigned shelf or display fixture. (Unlike earlier models of MetraLabs' robots, the Tory does not have a 124 kHz reader for navigation purposes.) In this way, the Tory could be used to capture inventory data at night, and to provide customer assistance during the day.

To launch the inventory-tracking functionality, a user would first need to set up the robot's route or coverage area. This is accomplished using the device's touchscreen to communicate with its onboard software. The software displays instructions on the screen to guide users through the process of setting up a new "scan area." The retailer first places the robot on a selected start point to begin its inventory count, then creates a name for the scan area or route and presses "start."

The user can then guide Tory along the desired scan area or navigation route (the screen will show the route recorded so far), and press "stop" when finished. The robot, which measures 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) tall and 0.5 meter (1.6 feet) wide, can be guided remotely via a game pad, keyboard, laptop or smartphone, Trabert says, but the most precise navigation is offered by pushing the machine manually. "The robot's wheels make it very easy and effortless to guide it through the store in exactly the way that the inventory run should ideally be performed later," Trabert states. Remote-controlled methods like a game pad or smartphone, he explains, tend to be too imprecise to accurately reflect the navigation route for inventory. "As this is a one-time procedure, we usually advise our customers to 'take a stroll through the store' with Tory. After that, setting up the robot is finished and automated inventory is ready for operation."

Tory saves the route in its memory and can later be dispatched from the same start point anytime that inventory counts are required. If there are any unforeseen obstacles or if any shelves have changed, Trabert says, the "navigation software will recalculate the route to best fulfill the ideal scan route, and if it's not possible, it will determine how much of the blocked area to skip for minimal detrimental effects to the inventory count."

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