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Lightweight Relays Enable Small Drones to Read RFID Tags Indoors

MIT has developed an RFID system that would allow users to capture tag reads with a small drone carrying a virtual antenna array to forward data between tags and a reader.
By Claire Swedberg

This helps the reader software to approximate each tag's location based on the angle at which its ID is received as the drone is moving, using algorithms to determine where the tag is situated, according to the drone's location and the angle of RF response. The group refers to this technology as a virtual antenna array on the drone. Such a setup is a favorable alternative to received signal strength indication (RSSI), Adib says, since RSSI calculations can be disturbed in indoor environments by reflections around the tag and reader.

The Media Lab has tested the drone at its own lab, and found that it can read tags accurately across about 100 times the coverage area of a simple RFID reader-and-tag scenario. It further tested the technology at furniture retailer Red Thread's warehouse, in Boston, for the stability and safety of the airborne technology in a real-world environment.

Fadel Adib
The drone that the researchers are using measures 30 centimeters by 40 centimeters (11.8 inches by 15.7 inches) and can carry a device weighing up to 200 grams (7 ounces). Because the relay weighs only 30 grams (1 ounce), Adib says, the system could work on an even smaller drone.

The group's next step is to further develop the system to capture more granular accuracy data. The goal, according to Adib, is to pinpoint a tag's location within half an inch. This level of granularity may become increasingly important, he notes. "In the future," Adib states, "you may need robots to fetch an item, and that level of accuracy would be necessary" to ensure that the robot collects the right goods.

How such granular location accuracy will be accomplished has not yet been decided, Adib says. In the long term, he adds, the group plans to work with partner companies that may wish to help develop a full solution for commercial customers.

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