Will RFID-guided robots rule the world?

Researchers envision a future in which bots guided by radio signals fill all sorts of human needs. Photos: Robots in action

Picture a typical playground. It's a sunny day and kids are playing tag, smacking tetherballs around and hanging off the monkey bars. Now imagine this: There's not a single parent or adult in sight, but a 3-foot, 260-pound robot on patrol instead.

Take a closer look and you'll see the children wearing small electronic devices, tiny radio transmitters that signal the bot when the kids wander out of safe range. 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.

Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but Secom, a security company in Japan, has already built such a machine, called Robot X. The company rents the robotic security guard for $2,700 per month, according to reports, and recently introduced a version designed specifically to monitor schoolyards and send reports of children's whereabouts to parents' cell phones.


What's new:
Researchers are envisioning mobile, RFID-guided robots taking on tasks such as helping families tend to disabled relatives and assisting in factory inventories.

Bottom line:
While the potential for robots guided by radio signals is vast, such technology is likely years away from becoming mainstream.

More stories on robots

The idea of a robotic bodyguard for schoolchildren may strike some people as brilliant and others as absurd, but Robot X is noteworthy for reasons other than playground safety. It is one of several groundbreaking efforts under way aimed at giving robots sensory perception that allows them to better interact with people and objects around them using radio frequency identification, or RFID. RFID is an electronic identification technology that's proliferated over the past year in libraries, prisons, hospitals, factories, stores, warehouses, airports and the military. And yes, it's turning up in schools too.

"We haven't really even started to put our imaginations to this issue," said Rob Richards, an executive at Frontline Robotics, a robot maker in Ottawa, Canada. "The applications are kind of endless."

The concept is already lighting up a few imaginations. 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. Along those lines, Germany's Infineon Technologies is using RFID to devise a more Teutonic version of the Roomba, iRobot's popular robotic vacuum. 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.

Researchers at Accenture in Palo Alto, Calif., think the technology will make toys and games more interesting. Imagine a doll that recognizes its accessories and can request new ones, or detects other toys and responds to them. Playing with Barbie may never be the same.

robot gallery

IBM filed a patent last year on a roving machine equipped with a Wi-Fi location tracking system and an RFID reader. Its purpose is to help stores and factories take an inventory of supplies. Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs is reportedly combining robots, RFID systems and photo sensors to guide robots and locate inventory on assembly lines. Hewlett-Packard is tackling the problem by throwing ultrasound and ultra-wideband short-range radio technology into the mix.

But before running to the store in search of a "smart toy" or robotic shopping assistant, realize that such technology is years away from becoming mainstream. Very few RFID-enabled robots are actually commercially available today. Like the more general market for robots, costs and technical limitations remain restraints.

"Robots and RFID tags are very much in the realm of demo-ware today; we're far from a practical commercial application," said Kevin Ashton, vice president of marketing at RFID gear maker ThingMagic."But it's certainly a cool concept that's out there and not completely ridiculous."

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. Worldwide revenue from radio frequency identification tags is poised to grow from $300 million in 2004 to $2.8 billion in 2009, according to market research agency In-Stat.

Robot in the warehouse
But 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, experts say. And that's several years away.

That's why IBM designed its RFID-enabled robot specifically for the warehouse environment.

"In the home, everything has to be tagged. That's a barrier to entry for consumers," said David Wood, a researcher at IBM's Watson Research Lab in Hawthorne, N.Y. "That's why the warehouse is the thing to go after. There's big money involved there."

That's no exaggeration. Wal-Mart, which is investing heavily in RFID for its high-tech supply chain, is said to be budgeting around $3 billion for the technology. Other major retail chains, including Albertsons, Target, Britain's Tesco and Germany's Metro Group, have followed suit with RFID plans of their own.

But IBM's robot is just a prototype for now. The company hit on the idea after a brainstorming session

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