UHF Reading Drone Tracks Vehicles, Assets

By Claire Swedberg

FEIG Electronics has teamed up with Tiger Labs and Congruex to develop a drone that can capture passive UHF RFID tag reads from a height of 25 feet, then forward that data, along with GPS-based location information, via Wi-Fi, LoRa or Zigbee.

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Several companies that manage large volumes of vehicles are piloting a passive RFID-based drone solution that captures the tag IDs of UHF RFID tags on vehicles, then forwards that data to a server, either in real time or via a Wi-Fi connection after the drone has completed its flights. The drones enable users to collect data regarding where thousands of vehicles are located across large areas, with an accuracy of about 8 feet.

The solution is the result of collaborative efforts between RFID company FEIG Electronics, electronics product development firm Tiger Labs Corp. and drone technology company CCLD Technologies, owned by Congruex. The three Atlanta-based businesses teamed up to develop an RFID-enabled solution for use by the automotive market, to automatically locate and identify vehicles in large yards or storage lots, at a relatively low cost. The companies displayed the resulting technology at this year’s RFID Journal LIVE! conference, held this month in Phoenix, Ariz.

The RFID-enabled drone

Initially, FEIG and its integration partners sought a solution that would provide inventory data to the automotive industry, in which high-value products (new vehicles) need to be tracked in large yards or storage lots. Other industries, such as construction and utilities, also need to track materials or products in sprawling outdoor lots, says Rob Ufford, FEIG Electronics’ sales representative, who cites building sites for power plants as one use case in which building materials need to be located within a laydown yard.

In previous years, Ufford had already developed active RFID-based drone solutions for the National Institute of Hometown Security (NIHS), in support of a project with the University of Kentucky to monitor the health status of cattle based on their daily movements. In fact, he says, most RFID reading drones employ active RFID, in part because the readers can be smaller and lighter-weight.

However, Ufford adds, active RFID isn’t economical in cases such as tracking vehicles in a large storage area, since the tags are too expensive and rely on batteries to operate. “With the sheer size of the area you have to cover and the volume of the vehicles, it makes more economic sense to use a low-cost, disposable tag,” he states, “so we selected a UHF RFID tag.” The partners are using FEIG’s MRU102 reader with the company’s circular-polarized antenna, which can be built into a drone to read those tags.

Using a passive UHF RFID reader posed challenges, however. For instance, Ufford says, the MRU102 readers lack GPS functionality, so the companies opted to build customized hardware. That’s where the partnership began with Gary Webb, Tiger Labs’ president. Tiger Labs solves engineering problems for its customers, designing such systems as handheld computers, IoT edge devices and add-on boards. To enable the passive RFID reading drone to accomplish more than simply reading tags, Tiger Labs built an add-on board to accommodate multiple technologies that can identify and store data about each tag read.

The board enables the drone to capture and store GPS data, and to link to a Zigbee radio that captures and transmits data to a gateway or other drones, within up to a 10-mile range. The add-on board enables other options as well. The drone could be equipped to use LoRa or cellular technologies to transmit RFID read data, or it could be linked to a Wi-Fi network to send data either in real time or when it comes within range of the Wi-Fi node. Until that time, Webb explains, the drone’s hardware includes memory for storing the location data.

Rob Ufford

Additionally, Webb says “We’ve built the device to accommodate different use cases in which they may need to know temperature or pressure, for example.” The drone comes with a battery, but the add-on board can be powered with 12 to 24 volts so that it could also be used on a vehicle driven around a space in which tags are being tracked. “The hardware is designed to be light-weight,” Ufford adds, noting that the board itself weighs less than a quarter of a pound.

The drone itself is provided by Congruex, which is helping several automotive companies to deploy and operate the drones, and to collect and manage the data they collect, according to Brett Burke, formerly CCLD Technologies’ CEO and now Congruex’s VP of business development. Congruex has been providing drone-based solutions for approximately six years, but this is the first time the company has done so with passive RFID.

Congruex provides drone services for outside plant engineering, government use and cell tower management, among other industries, and more recently has provided LIDAR as well, to capture distance measurements. “We feel RFID is the next step for drones,” Burke states. He has been working with Ufford for eight years on drone-based technology, he says, “and we always said we would put together an RFID solution. Now we feel we’ve done it.” He adds, “We are innovators always looking for the best technology to support Congruex’s expanding customer base. We feel this is the next step.”

The companies tested the drone at heights of up to 25 feet, travelling at 25 miles per hour. As the devices swept over a specific area, they were able to capture tag reads and then store that data, along with GPS information. The beam angle on the RFID antenna, Ufford says, is 130 degrees. Typically, it can identify a vehicle’s location within nine parking spaces.

The entire project took place during less than a year, Ufford reports, including the transition from active to passive, the development with Tiger Corp and the testing with Congruex. The use of RFID opens up drone-based solutions for a new category of customers in new industries, Burke says. “It also allows us to diversify the Congruex service package,” to help companies track their assets or inventory, he adds.

Gary Webb

Two businesses are currently piloting the drone-based system, with another expected to deploy the solution by summer 2019. The primary use case is automotive tracking for ports, automotive companies and dealerships, but it can also be used to track large goods, equipment or pallets in the logistics market, or in laydown yards for construction companies. What’s more, the technology can track granite or minerals for mining companies.

Typically, solutions will consist of Congruex’s drones with FEIG readers using Tiger Labs add-on boards, and FEIG’s systems integrator partners will provide the installation and back-end software required to manage the collected data. Congruex will work closely with customers to train and prepare them for FAA certification to pilot the drone, as well as in the system’s use and management, as well as help users set the flight pattern and assist with any maintenance issues that might arise.

The next evolution, Ufford says, will involve drones that can be flown indoors. “There’s a market demand for RFID inventory tracking indoors, in warehouses,” he states, “so that’s the next frontier.” However, engineering work is still under way to develop the drone with the capability to fly in smaller spaces, under ceilings. While the tight space poses some challenges, he notes, others are averted, such as the need for meeting FAA regulations, as well as having to accommodate cross winds and other weather-based conditions.

Congruex can also fly the drones for customers that don’t have staff members available to do so. In fact, the company has dozens of pilots on call for that purpose.