Will Tesco shoppers freak out at six-foot tall RFID robots?

As Tesco clothing shoppers rifle through the chain's apparel assortment, they'll be sharing the aisles with six-foot-tall RFID robots, rolling up and down, scanning clothing tags for inventory

tesco robot
Credit: RFSpot

As Tesco clothing shoppers rifle through the chain's apparel assortment, they'll be sharing the aisles with six-foot-tall RFID robots, rolling up and down scanning clothing tags for inventory. (Personally, I think a Texas approach — where the robots would be equipped with automatic weapons and paid for out of the loss prevention budget — would be more interesting.)

F&F, which is the name of the apparel unit of Tesco, the world's second-largest retailer by revenue, is running the robots as part of a five-store trial. Officially called RFspot Pro and nicknamed Robbie by the F&F team, the robots roam the floor, continually scanning tens of thousands of passive UHF EPC Gen2 tags, strolling up the aisles at about one meter/second on three sets of wheels, reading tags from as many as 30 feet away.

Without the robots — which more closely resemble tall canister-type vacuum cleaners than movie-style robots — Tesco would have dealt with two choices for RFID scanning: having store associates do manual scans, or installing stationary RFID readers in shelves, walls and ceilings.

Compared with manual scans, the robots are much faster, according to Myles Sutherland, director of business development for RFspot, which provided the robots to Tesco. With the F&F stores, for example, the full store can be robot-scanned in about an hour, compared with associate-scanned in about 8-9 hours, Sutherland said in an interview.

The stationary readers, in theory, could do the job even more quickly, but a store would need to install a huge number of them. More importantly, the readers would have to be positioned precisely in relation to the merchandise. Given that stores constantly move merchandise to different aisles — and sometimes have to move store locations, such as in a mall — the cost in cash and labor of taking the readers out and then reinstalling them would almost certainly wipe out any savings.

"Having a mobile infrastructure is a much more flexible way," Sutherland said.

An RFID Journal story about the robots noted some other Robbie advantages. "Each robot also comes with multiple antenna arrays to enable the interrogation of tags at all angles around the machine, from 6 inches above the floor to 12 feet above the floor," the story said. "RFspot is also working on automated tools for the robots to open doors and operate elevators in situations in which they must move from one room to another through a door, or to a different floor."

That scanning flexibility allows the robots, in theory, to deliver much more precise information back to the store's servers, which is really helpful given that the tags being used in these trials, for cost reasons, are passive and not active and the chain is not reusing the tags. "This gives us the ability to localize the tag, not just to the section of the store, but to localize it down to the shelf. That's really important," Sutherland said.

The robots wirelessly transmit data back to the servers, but the communication is not just one-way. The robots have large screens, and shoppers and store associates can talk with the robots. There's no artificial intelligence or voice recognition involved. Even when operating in an autonomous mode, there is a person who is wirelessly controlling the robot from a remote location. That person's face will appear on the screen, allowing for live video chats with anyone who approaches the robot.

It's a good thing I'm not one of the people managing the robots, as I'd be far too tempted to tell shoppers, "Out of my way, human. I am preparing your planet for robot domination, when we shall enslave the few human survivors. Now give me your iPhone. You won't be needing it."

Tesco, however, takes the human interactions much more seriously. Although it is not the intended role of the robots, Sutherland said, all operators are briefed on the stores they will be in — virtually — so that they can answer questions about where products can be found, the location of lavatories and other items.

"The primary purpose it not to be engaging" shoppers, but to instead map the environment and keep the robot operating as efficiently as possible. "So they don't get a ton of training, but we make sure that they are trained" just in case, Sutherland said.

Not sure how comforting it would be to see dozens of these robots waltzing down retail aisles — heck, at Best Buy or Sears, the robots could easily outnumber shoppers — but given all of the attempts made to economically leverage RFID data, this is one of the better ones.

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