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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The World Of RFID Guided Robots

Researchers are envisioning mobile, RFID-guided robots taking on tasks such as helping families tend to disabled relatives and assisting in factory inventories. Secom, a security company in Japan, has already built a machine, called Robot X - equipped with a camera, the robot relays live video to a remote security facility. When a stranger approaches one of the children, the robot, controlled remotely, gets aggressive. On six wheels, it pursues the intruder, flashing bright lights and sirens and spewing a thick cloud of smoke. The cyber-guard snaps a few pictures, too. While the potential for robots guided by radio signals is vast, such technology is likely years away from becoming mainstream.Scientists in Japan, Germany and the United States envision a myriad of uses for mobile, RFID-guided robots. An assistant professor at Utah State University is experimenting with one designed to assist blind people while they shop, helping them navigate stores and find merchandise.
Others hope the technology will someday help families tend to elderly or disabled relatives, dispensing medicine and performing household chores. The Infineon machine has an RFID reader, and when set to work on "smart carpet" embedded with RFID chips, the robot is guaranteed not to miss a single crumb or dust bunny, while taking the most efficient route across the floor. One of the main problems is that in order for a robot to detect something or someone, he, she or it must have an RFID tag on it. The tags combine a radio antenna and microchip. They have no power source of their own, but when scanned by a special reader, they broadcast a unique serial number. Over the last year or so, companies have been putting thousands of RFID tags on everything from casino chips to library books as prices for the technology have fallen and technical standards have emerged.
Tags must become a lot cheaper before they appear on everyday items. Today, tags range in price from 15 cents to as high as $100. At those prices, retailers and consumer goods companies are mostly reserving tags for large cases or pallets of merchandise, which allows them to track warehouse inventory. RFID tags won't appear on individual tubes of toothpaste and packages of socks until tag prices fall below 5 cents. That's why IBM designed its RFID-enabled robot specifically for the warehouse environment. But IBM's robot is just a prototype for now. The company hit on the idea after a brainstorming session involving the Watson Lab's RFID experts and its location-based services group.The researchers realized that once companies put RFID tags on everything, they have a problem. They either have to employ people to walk around with readers taking inventory or install expensive readers throughout their facilities. They came up with a third option-a mobile, location-aware, RFID-enabled robot.Frontline, a robotics start-up that emerged from stealth mode last year, is angling to be among the first in North America to introduce a commercially available RFID-guided robot.

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