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…


Egyptian Government Plans To Track The Movement Of 10 Million Vehicles With Low-Cost RFID Stickers

Just under three years ago, Techdirt wrote about China’s plan to install satnav tracking devices on vehicles in Xinjiang. That was just one of several early signs of the human rights abuses happening there. Today, people are finally waking up to the fact that the indigenous turkic-speaking Uyghur population is subject to some of the harshest oppression anywhere on the planet. Tracking huge numbers of vehicles might seem to be a typically over-the-top, money-no-object Chinese approach to total surveillance. Unfortunately, there are signs the idea is starting to spread, as this story in RFID Journal explains:

Egypt’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) plans to identify millions of vehicles as they travel on the country’s roads, using an RFID solution from Go+, with hardware and software provided by Kathrein Solutions in cooperation with Wireless Dynamics. The system, which will be implemented across approximately 10 million of the country’s vehicles throughout the next five years, consists of passive UHF RFID stickers attached to each car’s windshield, as well as tags on headlamps that respond to interrogation from readers installed above roadways, even at high speeds.

One justification for the move is to provide information on traffic flows. Another is to identify drivers who have been found guilty of traffic violations, and who should therefore not be on the roads. But plans to send all the data to a cloud-based data center will create a database that will eventually track every vehicle in the country. That will clearly be an invaluable resource for the country’s police and security forces, which unfortunately seem to take China’s approach to anyone who voices opposition to the authorities. Here’s what Human Rights Watch wrote in its most recent report on the country:

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government. The Egyptian government and state media have framed this repression under the guise of combating terrorism, and al-Sisi has increasingly invoked terrorism and the country’s state of emergency law to silence peaceful activists.

As well as the negative impact on human rights in Egypt, there is another troubling aspect to this move. According to the RFID Journal article, the company providing the new system, Go+, is “in discussions with four other countries about the possibility of implementing this solution once the Egyptian system is fully deployed.” China’s mass tracking of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang using satnav devices pioneered the idea of carrying out vehicle surveillance on a hitherto unseen scale, regardless of the cost. Egypt’s use of the much cheaper RFID trackers represents a worrying evolution of the idea. If the roll-out is successful, it could encourage other governments to adopt a similar approach, to the detriment of civil liberties in those countries.

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