Robotic InventAIRy Management

Having to close a shop, factory or warehouse for your quarterly or annual inventory check is frustrating. Climbing a ladder tens of feet into the air to count with a laser scanner, or worse a pen and paper, is both scary and precarious. Yet these tasks require the attention of hundreds of thousands of stores workers throughout the world on a regular basis.

The manual inspection of stock is a necessary and essential part of the global inventory process, yet ties up an entire facility’s workforce for sometimes days at a time, paralysing work flow and production. So, what’s the answer? Well, Flying robots, naturally.

The goal of the InventAIRy Project is to automatically localise and record existing inventories using airborne robotic assistants. Marco Freund, head of the InventAIRy Project at the Fraunhofer Institute of Material Flow and Logistics IML in Dortmund, has tasked his scientists and engineers to come up with a ‘dynamically animated records system’ that turns the traditional inventory system on its head.

RFID, the most commonly used system at the moment, is typical of the breed and tracks goods automatically with a straightforward chip and antenna. The antenna is fixed to the shelf and reads the chip, fixed to the goods, when it is loaded on or off said shelf. With InventAIRy, the antenna is no longer fixed to the self, but mounted on a specially engineered flying robot. Using GPS to navigate the surrounding area the little buzzing assistant can zip around the warehouse and count all the chips, then transmit the data into the existing inventory logs.

The result is a fast and accurate inventory check completed without any staff having to do much more than press a button. The flying aspect is necessary to ensure the digitally driven counters can reach every hidden corner of a facility, adapting to a warehouse’s individual configuration with motion and camera sensors, and then track the inventory items using either radio or optic sensors that respond to the item’s barcodes or RFID tags.

The engineers are also concentrating on being able to install their flying robots into any sized business by doing away with expensive infrastructure, that way making it feasible for small and medium sized operations. They intend to program intelligent algorithms into the assistants, that will enable them to create their own 3D maps automatically, and independently modify them if anything changes.

Freund says that preliminary results are extremely promising, and that they intend to start with a partially automated flight by mid 2015. At this stage, the robot will be hovering and manoeuvring laterally to avoid collisions, without remote control. With driverless transportation systems already a reality, fine tuning the details that will allow these robot stock checkers to quickly and safely whiz about independently is surely only a mater of time.

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