Trying to keep track of everything in a warehouse is incredibly tedious and ultimately not possible. Until now.
(MIT drones finding missing objects>)
Imagine, a future where drones buzz around warehouses, scanning box after box of inventory, taking a single day to do the work that might take weeks for a team of humans.
But there’s one obvious problem that’s preventing these ultra-cheap, battery-free smart stickers from becoming the industry standard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Fadel Adib tells Inverse. That problem is distance.
“If you want to use RFID tags for inventory control, they only work from a very limited range” of about a few centimeters away from the reader, he says. Although they only cost a few cents, are powered wirelessly, and can make the inventory-logging process vastly more efficient, the savings don’t add up because the work still requires humans to move through shelf after shelf, often in a massive warehouse, to manually read every object...
The MIT research team developed an aerial drone system capable of reading RFID tags from tens of meters away and identifying the location of the package within a 19-centimeter radius of accuracy. The drone system, called RFly, should allow for RFID-based inventory to be accomplished in large warehouses in a matter of hours or days, versus weeks and months the ol’ fashioned way.
I'm pretty sure engineer and science fiction writer James P. Hogan had this problem fixed (at least imaginatively) in his 1979 novel The Two Faces of Tomorrow; he used them as repair drones:
A sudden rushing sound, like that of high-velocity ducted air, mixed with a fainter electric whine, came from halfway up the wall to their right... It was an array of open compartments that looked like pigeon holes for mail, except that each was a foot or more square...
As they watched speechless, it slid smoothly out of its cell like a metal wasp emerging from its nest, and hung in midair a foot or so in front of the pigeonholes...
The wasp homed unerringly on the face of the honeycomb. It extended three of its tiny arms sideways to lock onto the registration pins located at intervals across the face and then, holding itself quite steady in the air, traversed slowly sideways until its axis was aligned with the array element from which Chris had taken the cartridge. Nobody could see quite what happened next because the wasp was flush against the face, but suddenly the widget-maker clicked into life again. The wasp detached itself and turned back to point at its cell. There was no need for Hayes to explain what had happened. It didn't take much thought to see that other wasps, equipped with suitable tools and carrying the right selection of parts, could replace far more things than just electronic microcartridges, provided of course that the equipment being serviced had been designed for it. "They're called drones," Hayes told them. "I'm sure I don't have to spell out the idea."