Available today. Like the more general market for robots, costs and technical limitations remain restraints. 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.
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."