Inventories are a necessary evil that need to be carried out at least once a year. Despite their necessity, they are also tedious, time consuming, labor intensive, and often involve businesses shutting their doors for whole days as they count how many unsold widgets are in the back room. The Fraunhofer Institute's InventAIRy Project plans to change that by developing a new flying robotic drone that not only takes over the drudgery of stock taking, but also acts as a new tool for record keeping and streamlining warehouse operations.
Taking inventory has changed a great deal from the days when a small army of workers equipped with clipboards and pencils were the only way of counting stock. Barcodes and RFID tags have speeded things up while cutting down on the manpower needed, but it remains a demanding, expensive, and unwelcome chore.
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Under the leadership of logistics specialist Marco Freund at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund, Germany, the InventAIRy Project aims to turn inventory work into as automatic an operation as synching a spreadsheet. One person will be given the ability to check inventory or look for a single item by means of a "dynamically animated records system" and a flying robotic assistant without leaving their desk or climbing a ladder.
The clever bit about InventAIRy is that it works by taking an RFID system and turning it inside out. RFID and similar systems work by fitting warehouses with antennae on the shelves at strategic locations. As stock is moved around, the antennae read the tags and update the inventory database.
In InventAIRy, the opposite happens. Instead of fixed antennae and moving boxes, Fraunhofer sees the boxes staying on the shelves while small flying drones patrol the warehouse, detecting and reading the tags as it goes.
The drones use a similar autonomous system to that being developed for driverless cars. The drones are be able to fix their positions using GPS and use motion sensors and cameras to map out and navigate the warehouse shelves. By being able to fly, they can avoid surface obstacles and traffic, such as other robots, as well as being able to hunt for items that have ended up crammed at the back of high shelves. In addition, the system is designed to blend smoothly with existing database inventory architectures.
"We take a look at various key problem sets at the same time: robustly designed, lightweight flying robots that can reliably recognize their surroundings, as well as intelligent software for their route planning and coordination," says Freund. "To ensure this solution is also appealing to small- and medium-sized enterprises, we intentionally dispensed with the installation of an expensive local infrastructure that the robots can use to orient themselves. The researchers want to accomplish this with the aid of intelligent algorithms. The flying objects should prepare maps of the warehouse on a fully automated basis, and independently modify them if there are any changes. The basis for this are, for example, ultrasound sensors, 3D cameras, and laser scanners."
According to Fraunhofer, the InventAIRy system should not only be able to count the number of buttons and zippers on the shelves, but also reduce costs by eliminating recording errors, identifying bottlenecks in production, and keeping a running tally of the inventory.
"By mid-2015, we intend to start with a partially automated flight," reveals Freund. "In this phase, the robot equipped with the identification technology hovers – without having to be controlled via remote operation – at one position, and circumvents collisions with obstructions, such as shelves."