PAL Robotics Rolls Out Tag-Reading Robot

The Barcelona firm expects to provide the newest version of its motorized StockBot to retailers for long-term pilots later this year, to count inventory by reading RFID tags.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 09, 2016

PAL Robotics plans to launch its first large-scale pilot of its motorized RFID-reading robot in Europe during the second half of this year. The newest version of the Spanish company's StockBot will be tested for its ability to read the RFID tags attached to products, while software will identify where those tagged items are located within stores.

Now that RFID tags are ubiquitous on products in some larger apparel retail stores, a number of companies are seeking ways to make it easier to conduct inventory counts without having to draw from employees who would otherwise be assisting customers, says Sergio Ramos, PAL Robotics' product manager. RFID makes inventory checks much easier compared with bar-code label scanning and visual counting, he explains. However, the technology typically requires an individual with a handheld reader to walk along the sales floor, waving the device past each group of products.

The StockBot has Impinj R420 readers and eight antennas onboard to capture the RFID tag IDs and link them with its location.
Fixed RFID readers are still somewhat expensive. Therefore, PAL Robotics has developed an alternative that is more automatic than handheld readers and less expensive than a fixed reader infrastructure.

PAL Robotics is currently in discussions with several European retailers in preparation for a long-term pilot of what is now the third-generation version of the StockBot. Citing non-disclosure agreements, the company declines to name the stores that may be piloting the robot.

Other technology companies are also selling RFID reading robots for the retail market. Ramos believes that StockBot differs from many of its competitors' robots because it was designed specifically for the use case of RFID in retail. StockBot is designed to adjust to a changing environment, such as the presence of customers, or the movement of displays or shelves. First, retailers use the robot and a joystick to map out the store and establish a route that the machine will travel while conducting an inventory count. The joystick (which is similar to the kind used in PlayStation devices) sends data to the robot via a 2.4 GHz signal. PAL Robotics also offers an application enabling users to control their robot via a Wi-Fi connection from an Android phone. The robot stores its route in its software. In the future, it will be able to automatically update that route, based on changes in conditions as detected by its built-in laser and 3-D camera sensors.

Since its launch in 2004, PAL Robotics has created a variety of humanoid robots designed to be interactive at conferences and exhibits, as well as autonomous mobile bases onto which items can be transported, for instance. The robots use laser sensors to navigate their way.

In 2014, Ramos reports, the company designed a model specifically for reading RFID tags. The StockBot has been through two prior versions, and the third is now being released, designed to have a smaller form factor than its predecessors, while still able to read tags on shelves at a height of 2 meters (6.6 feet) or more. The company has been testing the second version of StockBot at Barcelona Outlet, a clothing retailer located near the robotics firm. At that location, PAL Robotics has tested a StockBot's ability not only to follow a navigation route, but also to adjust that route as the environment changes—such as a shelf being moved to another location.

With most other robots on the market, Ramos says, a retailer would first use a joystick to guide the machine through the store in order to map out the site, and then configure the desired route that the robot would navigate. "It works fine, but a few days later, your shop is not the same as the map of the robot," he explains. "This produces two effects. The first one is that the robot gets lost easily. And the second one: The robot can't find a path to go to the places that were configured."

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