Did you ever misplace a book?

A robot can roam the shelves of a library to find misplaced books. Credit: A*STAR

I have hundreds, thousands probably, of books spread in various rooms at home, in other vacation homes and even in my garage where they end up when overflowing from other spaces. And more than once I found myself looking for a book with no idea where I could have possibly (mis)placed it.

I guess my problem is common to several other people and gets magnified for people managing libraries. In theory each book in a library has a very specific place where it is shelved, in practice it often gets misplaced.

At A*STAR in Singapore a team of researchers seems to have found a way to solve the problem by using a robot.

Robotic systems have been used in libraries since many years now for storing and retrieving books, as shown in the clip telling the story of the robotisation of the books storage at University of Missouri in Kansas City, but these systems were built from scratch and the robot is both placing and retrieving books. It is performing an automated task that requires very little intelligence, if any.

The problem is when you have a normal library made of shelves organised according to certain criteria (by title, by author, by genre, by date in any possible mix) and these shelves are managed by librarians and sometimes even by customers.  And this is the usual situation for 99.99% of libraries today.

Once a book gets misplaced (and it happens, oh boy, it happens!) it gets close to impossible to retrieve it. From time to time a reordering of the library takes place just to sort out the mess that piles up over time, and this takes quite some time!

The robots developed by A*STAR use an RFID detector that is interacting with RFID tag glued to each book and it is able to determine the exact location, with a precision of a centimetre, on a shelf.

At night time the robot roams among the shelves and uses an extensible arm to scan the shelves reading and recording the position of each book. It has a smart guiding system that allows it to meticulously follow all shelves, even curved ones, and pick up all the RFID data.  Then it generates a report to the librarians that in the morning will have the up to date picture of where each book is placed with highlighted indications of misplacement.

You still need to have human intervention to fix the misplacement but it saves a lot of time.

It is interesting to see how we can mix present organisation with technology that can improve the situation. Most of the time we have some solution that can let us build in a green field a much better system/organisation, but seldom we are in a green field.  Solutions that work on today's reality are the ones that are most interesting.

Not sure if it would made sense for me to get a few of these robots, probably not, but for sure there will be many times I will wish I have them.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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