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MIT Media Labs Creates Highly Precise UHF RFID for Robotics

The TurboTrack system employs a standard tag and interrogator, as well as a "helper" antenna device that pulses short signals to pinpoint the locations of even fast-moving tags at the sub-centimeter level.
By Claire Swedberg

To accomplish more granular localization, the team came up with the additional set of antennas sending short-duration pulses. The short pulses alone did not provide sufficient power to interrogate and receive a tag's ID-related data. Therefore, the team incorporated a standard UHF reader to interrogate the tag, and—in tandem with the helper—to listen to the RF responses of their short pulses.

The concept was inspired by the way in which super-resolution camera images merge multiple low-resolution images to create a single high-resolution image, Luo explains. The group wanted to do the same with RF signals. "If you have multiple cameras," he states, "you can merge low-resolution images to create a high-resolution image."

Researchers Fadel Adib (left) and Zhihong Luo
By using multiple antennas to capture location very precisely, along with the interrogator to prompt tag transmissions and identify tags, the team was able to demonstrate that the tags could be located on drones or other moving objects, so that robots could then respond to that information and conduct an activity, such as picking up an object. The short pulses use a different bandwidth than the interrogator: 800 to 900 MHz, rather than the standard UHF range of 902 to 928 MHz.

With the technology in place, the team has demonstrated that the location of a moving object can be surprisingly precise. For instance, they were able to use a tagged nano-drone to write letters in the air, and the software capturing the RFID tag-read data was able to understand what those letters were. They were also able to fly two nano-drones in unison, with one following the other's movements. The software can use artificial intelligence to manage the measurements from multiple tags and then respond to that data.

The group hopes to commercialize the technology, and they are currently in conversations with some technology companies as part of that effort. They also plan to further research how the technology might be used to make robotic systems more robust and accurate.

What's more, the researchers believe the technology could be employed for emergency response, with a reader and a helper device installed on such objects as a swarm of drones that could fly over an area to identify something with an attached tag. The reader and helper could also be stationary and provide location information to the software, which a robot or drone could then use to accomplish such tasks as locating a missing person. The system would also work well with active RFID, Adib says, in order to enable a longer read range.

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