Robot Offers RF Power-Harvesting Functionality for RFID Shelf Labels

Powercast is teaming with robotics firm Badger Technologies to offer an electronic shelf label management system that stores can employ, leveraging an RFID reading robot to update pricing at the shelf level.
Published: February 15, 2022

Technology company  Powercast has teamed up with  Badger Technologies, a provider of retail automation solutions, to offer a robot-based electronic shelf edge label (ESL) management solution that updates product price labels via an RFID reader built into a robot. While interrogating the RFID tag in each label, the device provides the RF power required to change pricing information. The addition of robotic RFID readers to interrogate, write to and energize the ESLs provides a new benefit to stores, the company reports. Powercast was a finalist in last year’s  RFID Journal Awards.

Following early testing of the robotic system with the robot, Powercast is now working with solution providers to schedule piloting of the technology at stores. Previously, the company’s UHF RFID ESLs had been tested via fixed and handheld RFID readers, both in-house and at a hardware store, according to Charles Greene, Powercast’s COO and CTO. Now, through the collaboration with Badger, Powercast has the ability to offer a third option, which includes the robotics functionality, in order to eliminate the need for a fixed infrastructure or for the manual labor needed to operate a handheld reader.

Powercast was launched in 2003, with its wireless powering system transmitting energy over the air via RF signals. In 2018, the company released its Batteryless Electronic UHF Retail Price Tag, which enables RFID-based updating of electronic paper (e-paper) information, such as prices for retailer shelves, while harvesting RF power. The power-over-distance wireless charging price tag has a built-in UHF RFID transponder and an e-ink screen, along with Powercast’s PCC110 Powerharvester chip. When interrogated, Greene says, the label not only can follow a command sent by the reader—such as changing pricing information—but also uses RF-to-DC power harvesting to enable those actions.

The majority of retailers still use printed paper labels that are periodically replaced on shelves as prices change. The benefit of using ESLs, the company reports, is the ability to dynamically access and update pricing more efficiently, according to the market or a competitor’s activity. Powercast cites a scenario in which a shopper at a store, while looking at a product on a shelf, uses a smartphone to discover that the same item is on sale at a competitor’s store, or available online, for a lower price. The customer might then order that less expensive product while the physical store, where that person conducted the search, loses a sale.

Charles Greene

ESLs can be more easily updated, Powercast explains. Management can simply update prices on a server, then use the fixed RFID reader to change the prices on the shelves, or have a sales associate do so with a handheld device. However, Greene says, although ESLs can be updated without requiring entirely new paper tags, they come with some shortcomings. Since ESLs require power to display changing data, retailers are leveraging coin-cell batteries that need to be periodically replaced. Some stores have 50,000 or more labels on each property, so replacing those batteries (which often have a lifespan of around two years) can be a time-consuming task.

That, in some cases, means stores simply need to replace the labels entirely when they cease to function. This not only results in an added cost for the retailer, but also impacts sustainability since so many batteries and labels end up in the waste stream. “This is a huge problem from a retailer’s perspective,” Greene states. “From an organizational perspective, that’s a hard pill to swallow for a retailer.”

Nearly 600 Badger Technologies autonomous robots have been deployed throughout the United States and Australia to gather real-time data about store and shelf conditions, and to enable retailers to address out-of-stock events, price integrity, planogram compliance and other operational inefficiencies. Powercast and Badger expect to offer the new solution through partners that may make their own electronic shelf labels, leveraging the Powercast chip for the purpose of power harvesting. “I think our next step is working with some of our partners and getting into a store trial,” Greene says, “where we can gather more data to use to basically move into larger deployments.”

The ESLs employ active-matrix technology, meaning they can display not only a price but also a barcode and a logo, and all of that text could be updated via an RFID reader. As a Badger robot moves through an aisle—for example, in the evening after store hours—the reader could capture tag ID numbers, use the software to link each ID with a particular product, and change the pricing displayed on each label according to the data input into the software.

For instance, if a chain were raising the price for a specific item at all of its stores, it could input that change into the software, and the robotic system at each location could automatically make that price change. As the robot’s reader wrote the data to the tag, the tag would harvest the RF energy it received and use that information to update the display, as well as respond with its own ID number and status update. Thus, the software could be updated to indicate which labels had already been changed.

While the system can leverage Badger’s robotics technology, it could also accommodate both fixed readers and handhelds carried by employees. If a store wanted to change the price of a particular product without deploying a robot to roam the aisles, it could simply use handheld readers to make that change.

Solution providers and stores could configure the software in a multitude of ways, the company reports, such as linking each unique ID on a label with a specific product, so that new prices could be correctly generated during interrogation. Conversely, stores could link changes to a given zone of products—for example, a handheld reader could access prices for a particular department, such as housewares, by reading a tag ID dedicated to that zone. Scanning barcodes, Greene says, would be another alternative for linking a specific zone or stock-keeping unit to particular price changes.

With regard to fixed readers, tags could be read or written to at a distance of up to 10 meters (32.8 feet), while the capture of data, and of sufficient power to update the e-paper display, would take about 45 seconds. Thus far, the technology has been prototyped only, and it has not been adopted by retailers.

In collaborating with Badger Technologies, Greene reports, Powercast “wanted to move to what we feel is more of an end-to-end solution. Yes, you can walk around with a handheld reader,” but that particular feature can still be labor-intensive. Therefore, he says, this new offering “brings us to the point where we’re happy with how the system works, how it’s constructed and how it’s going to be received by the retailers.”

The key selling point, Greene predicts, will be the ability to eliminate batteries. Although ESLs using Powercast’s power-harvesting technology will be more expensive than a typical battery-powered ESL, he says, the Powercast version will be considerably less expensive in the long term. That, in part, is due to the cost of replacing multiple batteries in a traditional ESL, as well as the manual labor required to change those batteries. “We’ve actually heard from some retailers that it’s easier just to throw the label away and put a new tag [on the shelf] than to try to go change all the batteries,” he states.

The retail landscape is changing, according to Andy Peacock, Powercast’s marketing manager, and labor shortages are one part of that landscape. The use of robots is poised to address that change, he notes, by managing price labels without human intervention. For Badger Technologies, he says, adding the Powercast ESL price-changing functionality “provides another arrow to their quiver when they go to sell their solutions.”