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Active RFID Goes Overhead With Drone-based Reader

Bechtel is piloting Atlas RFID's new reader payload for drones to capture tag reads in large spaces, in remote locations and at high elevations.
By Claire Swedberg

Bechtel was already utilizing the Jovix system to track the locations of around 20,000 assets—primarily pipes for the liquified natural gas (LNG) facility under construction at that location. Workers utilized vehicles and handheld readers to capture tag IDs while driving through the site. With the drone pilot program, the firm says it is adding an additional layer to its RFID-based yard-management system.

In fact, says Jeff Burns, Atlas's RFID product manager, the drone-based readers will most commonly provide an additional layer of data rather than completely eliminating drive-throughs or handheld reading processes. He notes that vehicles often move through the sites already; in such cases, the RFID readers that accompany drive-throughs can be valuable. "The drones then get information where you can't otherwise get reads," he states.

Atlas RFID's Subbu Nambi
Thus far, the piloting has taken place during scheduled breaks on site, and has been accomplished within 25 minutes or less, according to Subbu Nambi, Atlas RFID's hardware engineering VP. Because the tags are attached to large, heavy materials, he explains, they don't move often, so drone flyovers may not be necessary daily.

Atlas RFID's Daniel Bennion
"You can run the drone as many times as you want, depending on how often you are moving materials," Nambi says. He adds, however, that at locations such as Corpus Christi, hurricanes or other storms can disrupt a construction site, leading to the reconfiguration of material-storage locations, and the RFID-based drone can quickly capture information indicating where each piece of equipment or asset is located, as well as whether or not it has been moved.

While the initial deployment is taking place at Bechtel for an industrial construction site, Bennion says, the drone-based product would be appropriate for other industrial customers of RFID systems as well. The product may be the first active RFID-based drone reader, according to Atlas RFID, which calls it a natural fit for companies already using drones at their facilities or work sites. "This is something that was an exciting idea five years go," Bennion states, "but now drones are here—they aren't just something in the future." Therefore, putting an RFID reader on a drone, he adds, "felt like a very natural transition."

The reader payload was designed to be drone-agnostic so that it could easily be leveraged into existing drone systems. "We intentionally went in the direction of being agnostic," Burns recalls, with a reader that can be mounted on the aerial vehicle with no more impact than having a drone pick up a package and carry it during flight.

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