It’s wild to think that barcodes, the universal method for keeping track of inventory, first unrolled on the retail industry in the 1960s. They are inefficient — each barcode requires an electronic barcode reader — and expensive. There’s got to be a better way. Engineers think so, too, and it’s why they’ve been trying to push forward radio frequency identification tags (RFID tags) as a successor.

Imagine, a future where drones buzz around warehouses, scanning box after box of inventory, taking a single day to do the work that might take weeks for a team of humans.

But there’s one obvious problem that’s preventing these ultra-cheap, battery-free smart stickers from becoming the industry standard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Fadel Adib tells Inverse. That problem is distance.

“If you want to use RFID tags for inventory control, they only work from a very limited range” of about a few centimeters away from the reader, he says. Although they only cost a few cents, are powered wirelessly, and can make the inventory-logging process vastly more efficient, the savings don’t add up because the work still requires humans to move through shelf after shelf, often in a massive warehouse, to manually read every object.

That’s an insane obstacle when you consider the size of a warehouse. The largest Walmart warehouse in the United States, for example, is bigger than 17 football fields.

So Adib set upon figuring out a solution that could expedite the process and make it so that RFID tags could actually solve the problem for which they were invented. The solution? Drones, of course. As illustrated in a new paper presented this week at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communications (SIGCOMM), drones could very do RFID scanning, making warehouse processing more efficient and reducing the number of packages that go missing.

“Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies among its warehouses,” says Adib, who is a “Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor” at MIT, which also cited a loss by Walmart in 2013 of $3 billion in revenue over discrepancies between inventory records and actual stock.

The MIT research team developed an aerial drone system capable of reading RFID tags from tens of meters away and identifying the location of the package within a 19-centimeter radius of accuracy. The drone system, called RFly, should allow for RFID-based inventory to be accomplished in large warehouses in a matter of hours or days, versus weeks and months the ol’ fashioned way.

The drones don’t actually carry the RFID reader with them — Adib explains that this added weight basically caused the drone to crash — but rather, relays the signals emitted by the reader over larger distances. “You can take a single reader, whose range is limited to a few centimeters, and send the signal over exponentially larger distances,” he says.

One of the biggest issues Adib and his team had to figure out was developing a drone that was safe enough to operate around people. Obviously, a military-style vehicle was out the question. The team managed to figure out a vehicle lightweight enough with plastic rotors which could travel fairly quickly, without posing a threat to any workers who would be moving around in the vicinity.

Another big challenge to overcome was the fact that the signal transmitted by the RFID tag is actually 1 million times stronger than the signal being received by the reader. “Imagine you’re screaming and you’re trying to listen to someone who’s whispering,” says Adib. This is compounded with the fact that different signals are transmitting in such a way as to potentially interfere with one another.

The team basically created several different work-arounds to help modulate the signals and allow them to be read clearly and accurately — all over lengthier distances than the RFID readers are used to.

Adib says the team is already getting a ton of attention from different parties, and for good reason, when you consider how in 2016, the U.S. National Retail Federation estimated that inventory shrinkage accounted for about $45.2 billion in annual losses among retailers. RFly could be an easy way to save U.S. businesses billions.

But what about the humans who are employed already to do this work? When asked about the potential for this new technology to eliminate jobs, Adib argues that a human will still need to operate and oversee the drones. Moreover, the fact that a job which once took potentially a year to do can now be accomplished in under a day could actually incentivize companies to keep their warehouses in the U.S., since it would help cut the costs of keeping those facilities working.

“Because it makes the problem much more efficient,” he says, “this is a way that allows you to retain a lot of these jobs and make them much more efficient.”

Photos via Getty Images / Oli Scarff, MIT