MIT's new tech uses tiny drones for real-time inventory management

MIT develops drones for inventory tracking and management - Representational ImageCRISTINA QUICLER/AFP/Getty Images

MIT researchers have developed a system aimed at deploying small, safe aerial drones to track and monitor warehouse inventory in real time.

Targeting the biggest problems associated with conventional methods of inventory management, MIT's new system, dubbed RFly, is set to use small, lightweight drones with plastic rotors to assist warehouse personnel with things like monitoring inventory, preventing its mismatch with internal logs, and locating particular products within minutes.

According to MIT News, retail units have been using barcode and RFID (radio-frequency identification, which uses electromagnetic field for tracking product tags) to monitor inventory. The former has proved expensive over the last 50 years, while the latter hasn't delivered the efficiency it was supposed to deliver.

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RFID readers have a very limited range (about a few centimetres) and need to be placed in close proximity of a product for successful scanning. They can theoretically take up to three months to review the inventory of a large-scale unit, but MIT's RFly drones use the same tech to get the same work done in a matter of days.

The tiny drones, flying at a safe height of the warehouse, do not carry heavy RFID readers on their backs, but relay their signals to identify and scan tags "from tens of metres away". The researchers say that the drones carry a 19cm margin of error, but are safe enough to fly within close range of humans. Moreover, the idea of relaying signals also ensures cost efficiency as the system will work with existing RFID inventory systems, tags and readers.

"In 2016, the US National Retail Federation reported that shrinkage — loss of items in retail stores — averaged around $45.2bn annually," says Fadel Adib, whose group developed the new system at the MIT Media Lab. He also noted that between 2003 and 2011, the US Army lost track of $5.8bn worth of supplies in its warehouses.

MIT's latest technology could be a boon for the US government and private retail giants that are looking at novel ways of streamlining inventory management. Amazon has already unveiled plans for flying deliveries and, with RFly being tested in the warehouse of a major Massachusetts retailer, chances are we'd be seeing tiny, little warehouse drones very soon.

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