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Smart Things

German researchers are empowering RFID-tagged objects, such as containers or pallets, to navigate their own way through the supply chain.
By Rhea Wessel
Sep 10, 2007—An RFID-tagged container of books begins its journey to a bookseller in Frankfurt, Germany, at a distribution center in Hamburg. As it travels on an automated material-handling system, it tells an RFID interrogator, "I am a container of Paulo Coelho books, and I want to go to rack 5, bay A." A robot-powered forklift gives it a ride to the bay, where it sits for a few days until the time comes for the previously scheduled second leg of its journey. The container then announces to another interrogator, "I want to travel to the shipping area for packages destined to Frankfurt, with a stop at the commissioning desk."

The forklift picks up the container and deposits it on a conveyor belt in the commissioning area of the distribution center. The container then receives its shipping order, hitches a ride on the conveyor system and joins up with other containers on a pallet bound for Frankfurt.

This may sound like science fiction, but if German researchers have their way, RFID systems will enable autonomous objects to seek out the quickest and most efficient routes to their destinations by acting on information stored on their tags. In short, autonomous objects would move through material-flow systems much like data packets move around cyberspace, finding the best route to their destination based on the information they carry. And if the tags were equipped with environmental sensors or location-sensing technology, the objects would collect additional information as they moved through the supply chain, which could be used to make other decisions.

The concept of autonomous objects combines emerging technologies with a long-standing logistics principle: Decentralized systems are easier to control than centralized ones. "If I turn stupid things into smart ones, they have their own rules," says Elgar Fleisch, a professor of information and technology management at ETH Zürich and the University of St. Gallen, and co-chair of the Auto-ID Labs. "They act on their own information. In order to manage complex systems, you disperse authority."

German researchers at the Fraunhofer Society's Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) and the University of Dortmund have taken the concept to the lab, where they have developed a working model for "smart things"—RFID-tagged containers designed to guide themselves to their destinations on a conveyor belt. The IML and the Fraunhofer Society call this flagship project the Internet der Dinge, German for the Internet of Things. The project is funded in part by Siemens, the Technical University of Munich and the German government.

The Internet der Dinge is not to be confused with the Internet of Things, also known as the EPCglobal Network—the infrastructure that allows companies to track goods in the global supply chain and obtain information about products associated with Electronic Product Codes. Fleisch, author of the book Das Internet der Dinge, envisions that systems of autonomous objects would make up one part of the Internet of Things. He believes the Internet of Things should describe neither the ability to look up information about EPC-tagged objects on a database, nor systems of autonomous objects. Instead, he maintains, it should be an umbrella term for the world of ubiquitous computing or pervasive computing—a world in which everyday objects communicate with one another.

"There is no precise or common understanding of the term 'Internet of Things,' leaving room for various interpretations," says Fleisch. "This is unfortunate, because clear concepts and terms are necessary for emerging research fields to become established and accepted."To remedy the situation, he is planning an international conference for industry and academia in March 2008 in Zurich. At the conference, he hopes to define the notion, scope and technical requirements needed to build the Internet of Things.
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