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Drone RFID Read Rate Hovers Near 100 Percent in Oil Fields

Researchers at Cal Poly, using RFID technology from technology company Process Expert, confirmed in three pipe-tracking applications that passive RFID tags could be read at near-perfect rates while in flight around 12 feet above those pipes.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 06, 2018

A California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) research project has found that an RFID-enabled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, can read tags attached to steel drills or utility pipes at an accuracy rate of 95 to 100 percent. The year-long research project tested the technology at multiple sites, and in a variety of applications, as well as with several frequencies of RFID technology.

The tests all relied on a common feature, though: the RFID-enabled drone that swept over RFID tags in wide spaces. Solutions using RFID technology in drones for the oil and gas sector, or at other industrial companies, are now being developed and marketed by Process Expert, a company founded in 2007 by Tali Freed, a professor in Cal Poly's Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering Department, the head of the research project and the director of the PolyGAIT-RFID Research and Development Center.

The research focused on capturing data from for the purpose of equipment inventory tracking in oilfields, but also included other utility-based equipment in storage yards or at construction sites. It also involved another use case, says Freed: tracking cattle grazing in an open field.

The project provided promising results when it comes to read rates, Freed says. Whether passive or active RFID tags are used, the group found that the read rate, adjusted according to the speed and height of an RFID-enabled drone, was high—typically, nearly all tags could be interrogated accurately. The scope of the project, which ran from March 2017 to March 2018, was to determine how effectively drones could be used to capture RFID tag reads for inventory or asset management.

Oilfields have a unique challenge when it comes to inventory management, based in part on the size of equipment, the way in which it is stacked, and the large expanse of some storage areas. Oilfields often require hundreds of thousands of tubulars (pieces of steel pipe used in drilling operations), which are stored across large fields, and counting them is a time-consuming process. However, manual counts have typically been the only tools available to site managers.

With RFID, items could be tracked as long as a reader remains within range of those tagged items. But in a large storage yard, a fixed reader deployment would not be realistic, and carrying a handheld reader throughout the storage yard regularly, Freed says—even with a vehicle—would still be time-consuming. The group speculated that this could open a possible use case for drones.

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