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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 involving the Watson Lab's RFID experts and its location-based services group, Wood said. 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.

"After hours, they could run around in a systematic pattern and take a complete inventory of all the shelves," said Richards of Frontline Robotics, which is working on a similar system.

A summer intern from Michigan State University rigged a prototype together for IBM last year, using mainly commercially available components: an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer, an RFID reader from Intermec Technologies and a Wi-Fi indoor location tracking system from a Finnish company called Ekahau.

"Robots are not the solution to every problem. A simpler solution is the preferred one."
--Salil Vijaykumar Pradhan
chief RFID technologist
HP Labs

The prototype also used a Roomba as its robot. "We took out the vacuum components to keep it quiet and save on battery," Wood said.

The part the IBM team is trying to patent is a software program it developed to boost the accuracy of the Ekahau location reading system. The company is still waiting for approval from the U.S. Patent Office and for more interest from customers. For now, it has no plans to make the machine commercially available. "We've discussed it with a number of customers," Wood said. "But I can't disclose who."

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. The company is in talks with a major RFID-tag maker that supplies technology to Wal-Mart, Richards said. Richards, who is chief operating officer at Frontline, declined to name the tag maker, but expects the companies to sign a pact this fall that will allow them to combine their technologies. If that happens, Frontline could be shipping thousands of units by next spring, he said.

Richards claimed Wal-Mart is interested in robot technology, but a Wal-Mart spokesperson denied it. "We are not looking into robots in any way, shape or form," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said.

Wal-Mart also recently denied an eWeek report that said it is testing a robot created at Utah State University to guide visually impaired people through its stores and locate products for them. Eweek reported in May that the manager at a Wal-Mart store near the university confirmed the store had the robot.

Attorneys for Wal-Mart are apparently touchy about the subject. The company's lawyers contacted the university about the eWeek story, and the researchers then backpedaled on earlier statements about the level of Wal-Mart's interest in the technology, the magazine reported.

But Frontline isn't counting on Wal-Mart or other retail chains for future sales. It's mainly marketing its robots the way Japan's Secom does--as high-tech security guards. Richards said the company is already working with the Canadian government, several airports and an international defense contractor.

"Robots can roam the floor much more effectively than humans," Richards said. "They don't make cell phone calls, and they don't get sleepy. And you don't care if they get blown up."

Yet RFID researchers, including some very tech-savvy people at Accenture and HP, say there's a chance that RFID-enabled robots may never really take off, at least in some of the ways people are imagining. For one thing, indoor location tracking technology, a key component of the inventory tracking application, is difficult to do and is still evolving. For another, mobile, untethered robots are relatively clumsy, complex and expensive.

"The more mechanical moving parts you have, the higher the probability of failure," said Salil Vijaykumar Pradhan, chief technologist for RFID at HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif. "I'm looking at commercial and enterprise environments, and I see other things being more practical."

Robots are more practical in environments that lack infrastructure, such as on Mars or the battlegrounds of Iraq, he said. But in factories, warehouses and stores, there's already a lot of infrastructure. Why bother with a robot when you can stick an RFID reader on a forklift or shopping basket that's already making the rounds?

"Personally, robotics is something I've always been fascinated by; it's got huge promise," Pradhan said. "But robots are not the solution to every problem. A simpler solution is the preferred one."