Robots track moving objects with unprecedented precision

A novel system developed at MIT uses RFID tags to help robots home in on moving objects with unprecedented speed and accuracy. The system could enable greater collaboration and precision by robots working on packaging and assembly, and by swarms of drones carrying out search-and-rescue missions.

In a paper being presented next week at the USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation, the researchers show that robots using the system can locate tagged objects within 7.5 milliseconds, on average, and with an error of less than a centimeter.

In the system, called TurboTrack, an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag can be applied to any object. A reader sends a wireless signal that reflects off the RFID tag and other nearby objects, and rebounds to the reader. An algorithm sifts through all the reflected signals to find the RFID tag’s response. Final computations then leverage the RFID tag’s movement — even though this usually decreases precision — to improve its localization accuracy.

The researchers say the system could replace computer vision for some robotic tasks. As with its human counterpart, computer vision is limited by what it can see, and it can fail to notice objects in cluttered environments. Radio frequency signals have no such restrictions: They can identify targets without visualization, within clutter and through walls.

“If you use RF signals for tasks typically done using computer vision, not only do you enable robots to do human things, but you can also enable them to do superhuman things,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor and principal investigator in the MIT Media Lab, and founding director of the Signal Kinetics Research Group. “And you can do it in a scalable way, because these RFID tags are only 3 cents each.”

In manufacturing, the system could enable robot arms to be more precise and versatile in, say, picking up, assembling, and packaging items along an assembly line. Another promising application is using handheld “nanodrones” for search and rescue missions. Nanodrones currently use computer vision and methods to stitch together captured images for localization purposes. These drones often get confused in chaotic areas, lose each other behind walls, and can’t uniquely identify each other. This all limits their ability to, say, spread out over an area and collaborate to search for a missing person. Using the researchers’ system, nanodrones in swarms could better locate each other, for greater control and collaboration.

“You could enable a swarm of nanodrones to form in certain ways, fly into cluttered environments, and even environments hidden from sight, with great precision,” says first author Zhihong Luo, a graduate student in the Signal Kinetics Research Group.