How MIT Researchers Are Commercializing RFID, Computer Vision Robotics

The MIT Media Lab system employs RFID technology to enable a robot to find a specific item in a complex environment and take instructions.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are employing radio frequency identification (RFID) technology along with computer vision to enable robots to explore their environment in order to locate and move a targeted item that may not be visible. The system, which has been in development, simulation and testing for several years, employs machine learning to better accomplish such complex tasks, and the team is seeking to commercialize the research.

In that effort, the researchers have been interviewing potential customers and planning a possible company spinoff. This year, the team has participated in the I-Corps program, led by the  National Science Foundation to identify potential sponsors and plan the first product. “The technology has matured enough to take it out of the lab into the real-world environment,” says Fadel Adib, an MIT associate professor and the Media Lab‘s principal investigator.

The RFID portion of the robotic system employs what researchers call RF perception, consisting of off-the-shelf passive UHF RFID tags, as well as an RFID reader and specialized antennas installed in the robot’s environment. Robots employ RFID to identify items and their specific locations when they are not visible, and the software analyzing that data can direct the robots via computer vision to focus on the items before them, determine what needs to be moved or navigated around, and act accordingly. The technology, the researchers say, could be leveraged by manufacturers, retailers or warehouses to sort, pick or place goods.

The robot is designed for two primary solutions, according to Adib. One is monitoring goods moving through warehouses that need to be picked and packed according to customer orders, which traditionally requires workers to move through aisles, opening boxes and finding specific items, then placing them in containers for shipping. With RFID, the robots could identify what is in a given box or on a particular shelf, then pick up that item and confirm where it was placed. The system is designed to prevent…