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RFID Reading Drone Tested in Asia Warehouses

SATO and AeroLion have completed a proof-of-concept for an RFID reading drone that captures tag reads at warehouses in Thailand and Singapore, for goods stacked up to 10 meters in height.
By Claire Swedberg

The AeroLion-SATO solution aims to bring drone-based RFID reading indoors, the companies repot. The proof-of-concept took place at two warehouses, one located in Singapore and the other in Thailand. Both facilities provide logistics for home electronics products. SATO and AeroLion applied UHF RFID tags to cardboard boxes containing electronics. The boxes were stacked on pallets, two at each site, and each pallet had its own UHF RFID tag attached to it.

The goods were stacked on the racks already in use at the warehouses. In Singapore, the products were stacked at a height between 6 and 8 meters (19.7 and 26.2 feet), Chatani explains, while the tagged boxes were stacked at up to 10 meters (32.8 feet) high at the Thailand-based facility. SATO selected a small RFID reader from a partner that he says was suitable for the application based on its weight. AeroLion built a prototype drone with a load weight capacity of 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds), and the reader mounted on that drone weighs slightly less. The drone has a 70-centimeter (27.6-inch) footprint, Fei says, and is compact enough that workers could carry it with one hand.

For the proof-of-concept, the group chose to test RFID tag reading in a limited area at each warehouse. "To increase the reading accuracy," Chatani says, "we set the drone to travel back and forth multiple times in each zone at different heights." The drone began at a pre-set altitude at a lower level, then increased its height by 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) with each pass over the goods. The drone was tested twice—one test per day. AeroLion programmed the drone's path at each location, and the device captured tag reads autonomously, while saving that data onboard so it could be downloaded at the end of the cycle count.

"We found the read rate varies depending on the product" packed in the boxes, Chatani says. The read rate was 100 percent with easy-to-read products, he reports, while other items that might include metals could be more difficult to read. "The read rates were not that different than you would get using a handheld reader." The drone could accommodate any standard UHF RFID reader on the market if its weight was below 1 kilogram. "The drone itself is fully autonomous throughout the cycle counting operation," Fei states.

The testing proceeded as planned and with few surprises, according to the two companies. Development work included adjusting the antenna's size and orientation to gain the highest read accuracy. SATO calls the proof-of-concept a success and is now looking into further research and development before releasing the solution commercially. "We believe there is potential to expand to other types of warehouse environments to improve the safety of workers," Chantani says.

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