- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Jianny Five is a docile little robot. Nothing here to fear.

He’s just a platform with wheels and antennae. Just a foot stool with the brains of a Dell laptop and eyes of an Xbox camera.

He’s cute like Johnny Five in Short Circuit - only not as evolved. There’s absolutely, positively no need to be alarmed.

Unless, that is, you happen to work at the mall. In which case - be alarmed.

Be very alarmed.

Because this little robot, built in the Auburn University Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Lab - mostly by students Jian (hence the name) Zhang and Yibo Lyu — can in five minutes do what would take a competent human three hours.

And he can do it better.

Turn him on and little Jianny buzzes through a mock clothing store in the old Auburn Bruno’s where the lab is now located, reading chips in tags with electromagnetic energy. It finds all 755 items in the store in the time it would take Heather in the mall to go to the bathroom. Not only that but you can tell him what item you want - 34-30 Levi’s blue 505s with straight legs, for instance - and he rolls straight over there. Without a single eye roll.

But wait - wait. Don’t go all nuts.

Justin Patton, Director of the RFID Lab, insists this whole thing is about innovation and economic development, and not scaring the bejesus out of workers at Banana Republic.

What things like this can do, he says - as reassuringly as he can as yet another device instantaneously reads every single clothing tag in the fake store, keeping real time inventory all the time - is to simply make it possible for store workers to do what they were hired to do in the first place: pay attention to customers and sell clothes.

And it will keep stores from … losing their shirts.

But this lab is not just robots and retail. It’s about helping students and businesses better understand and use RFID technology. To do almost anything.

RFID is like a bar code, sort of, with aluminum prints that uniquely identify each tag. It can be used to track shipments on trucks, to keep track of medicines in hospitals or even oysters on a bed. It’s already used on toll roads and automobile keyless entry systems, in the spines of library books and in those badges you wave in front of a door for access. It’s used in the ID chips they inject into pets.

See The Robot That Will Shake Up The Mall Jianny Five — and other RFID technology — has Auburn on the cutting edge.

“The applications are obvious in retail and that’s a start,” said Bill Hardgrave, dean of the Harbert College of Business at Auburn. “But it cuts across a lot of things. It could be tracking any type of tools or products, it could be in aerospace, food safety or quality, tracking food through the supply chain, and that’s why the lab is here.”

The technology is better than a bar code in ways, because it can read through objects and catalogue individual items many feet away. And it doesn’t lose count. But it is still more expensive than bar codes - about 7-to-10 cents a tag.

This 13,000-square-foot lab - begun by Hardgrave at the University of Arkansas and brought to Auburn after he was lured to the Plains - has put Auburn students on the exploding edge of RFID globally, Patton said.

The students have built an “anechoic chamber” (an anti-echo chamber for those who want their words to be obvious) that completely absorbs sounds or electromagnetic waves. Radio waves have a tough time reading through things like metals or liquids, and tags are constantly tested there.

Patton said almost all the retailers in the U.S., and many across the world, are now requiring their RFID tags to be checked and validated by Auburn students in that chamber before they go into retail stores.

“We’re a central part of that chain,” Patton said.

And that chain is huge. Think about it. In 2010 there were about a billion RFID tags in retail markets in the U.S. Now there are about 4 billion.

“That puts Auburn students right in the middle of that process,” he said.

And it’s not just computer geniuses, either. The lab - with its mock grocery stores, warehouses and clothing shops - involves the schools of business and human sciences, agriculture and engineering. Interior design students work with the science and business students to bring Auburn to the world, and the world to Auburn.

The lab recently took on a project with Amazon.com, and sponsors of the program include Checkpoint Systems, Saks Fifth Avenue, Target and Tyco International.

Of course some people are afraid of RFID altogether. They fear humans could be tagged and monitored by government, or that their information or identities can be stolen by distant ne’er do wells.

But Patton dismissed that. The signals aren’t strong enough, there’s not really data on tags that would be helpful (or harmful) now. And people - like soup cans - are not good for tagging.

It’s why RFID tags on pets don’t really help you locate them. If you take a pet in to the vet to have it identified, the tag can be read up close. But from a distance, no way. And people are the same.

“You and I are just giant bags of water,” Patton said. “Humans are very hard to tag. They could track you with your cellphone a whole lot better than they’ll ever track you with RFID.”


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