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SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR READING
The present invention relates to package tracking systems, and more particularly relates to systems for automatically reading and decoding package information such as machine readable codes and alphanumeric destination information.
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION 10
Small package delivery companies such as the assignee of the present invention may handle as many as several million packages each day. In order to improve the efficiency and accuracy with which this volume of packages is handled, 15 these companies increasingly rely on automated package sorting and routing facilities. Small package delivery companies also desire to obtain package related information in order to better manage their operations and to provide a variety of shipping related information to their customers. 20
The process of sorting and tracking packages as they proceed through a package transportation system requires that each package bear two types of information. First, each package must provide a destination address. Second, each package must include a tracking number that uniquely 25 identifies it from other packages in the system.
The destination address is required in order for the package delivery company to know where the package is going. The destination address, which includes alphanumeric text, is typically written on the package or printed on 30 a label that is affixed to the package. For addresses in the United States, the destination address includes a street address, city, state and zip code.
The tracking number, which consists of a series of alpha- 3J numeric characters, uniquely identifies each package in the package transportation system. In most cases, the tracking number is affixed to the package in the form of a machine readable code or symbol such as a bar code. The machine readable code is read by electronic code readers at various ,„
points in the transportation system. This allows the package delivery company to monitor the movement of each package through its system and to provide customers with information pertaining to the status and location of each package.
The importance of collecting package related data has led 45 to the development of a variety of devices for reading bar codes and other machine readable codes. These devices include hand held readers used by employees when they pick up or deliver packages, and over-the-belt cameras that are mounted over conveyor belts in order to read machine 50 readable codes as the packages move through the delivery company's terminal facilities.
In some cases, shippers may also print and affix labels including two-dimensional machine readable codes that include both package identification information and desti- 55 nation address information. These dense codes are read by over-the-belt cameras and the information is used to track and sort the package. However, for packages that enter the delivery company's system without such labels, there is no efficient, automatic way to prepare such labels and affix go them to packages.
Optical character recognition (OCR) technology has also improved to the point where it is feasible to automatically read and decode printed destination address data. The assignee of the present invention has developed over-the- 65 belt camera systems that can be used to capture and decode bar codes and text as packages travel beneath the camera on
a conveyor belt. The ability to read and decode destination address data is useful because it facilitates automatic sorting and routing of packages in the delivery system.
Although OCR systems are becoming more common, there are often difficulties associated with decoding data from packages moving on a conveyor belt at a high rate of speed. Current bar code decoding techniques provide for using a variety of algorithms for scanning an image and locating and decoding a bar code. These techniques are very accurate, in part because of the use of checksums and other techniques to ensure the reliability of the bar code decoding process. OCR techniques typically apply a variety of decode algorithms to a string of text in order to accurately decode the text. However, there remains the possibility that the address data may be improperly decoded. Furthermore, it is difficult to detect an improperly decoded address because OCR decoding does not employ checksums and other techniques that are available to verify the accuracy of machine readable codes.
Therefore, there is a need in the art for a system that reads and decodes bar codes and text, and which verifies the accuracy of the destination address data. Furthermore, there is a need for a system that provides a method for correcting improperly decoded destination address data, and for combining the destination address data and the decoded bar code data to form a unified package record, which may be used to track and sort the package as it moves through the package delivery system.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
The present invention satisfies the above-described need by providing a system and method for reading package information. In the system of the present invention, a package bears at least one label that includes information indicia such as a destination address and a machine readable symbol (for example, a bar code or two-dimensional dense code) bearing a package identification number. As packages move along a conveyor belt, an image of each package is captured and the indicia are decoded. The decoded destination address is validated by checking a database of valid addresses. If the decoded address is invalid, an image of the address is displayed on an image display workstation, and an operator enters the correct destination address. The symbol data and destination address are combined to form a unified package record, which may be used to sort and track the package. The unified package record may be stored in a database or printed on a label and affixed to the package.
Generally described, the present invention provides a method for reading package information from a package that includes first and second information indicia. The method includes capturing an image of the package. The captured image includes the first information indicia and the second information indicia. The first information indicia is located and decoded to provide first package data. The second information indicia is located and decoded to provide second package data. The first and second package data are then combined to form a unified package record. The unified package record may be stored in a database or printed on a label and affixed to the package.
In another aspect, the present invention provides a method for reading and verifying package information from a package. The method includes capturing an image of the package, which includes information indicia. The information indicia is located and decoded to provide first package data. The first package data is verified to determine whether it is valid. If not, the image of the information indicia is
displayed on a workstation. Manually entered first package data is then received from an operator at the workstation.
In yet another aspect, the present invention provides a system for reading package information from a package, which includes first and second information indicia. The 5 system includes an imaging system with a camera for capturing an image of the package, and a label decoding system for processing the image. A printer is provided for printing a label to be affixed to the package. The label decoding system is programmed to locate and decode the 1° first information indicia in the image, thereby providing first package data. The label decoding system also locates and decodes the second information indicia in order to provide second package data. The first and second package data are combined to form a unified package record, which may be :5 printed by the label printer.
More particularly described, the label decoding system of the present invention includes an image display workstation. The system is operative to determine whether the second package data is valid and, if not, display the image on a 20 workstation. The system receives manually entered second package data from the workstation, and forms the unified package record from the first package data and the manually entered second package data.
It is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a system that reads and decodes all relevant package data from a package.
It is another object of the present invention to verify the accuracy of the decoded package data. 30
It is another object of the present invention to facilitate the correction of incorrectly decoded package data.
It is another object of the present invention to provide a unified package record including relevant package data.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
FIG. 1 is a block diagram of a system for reading package information in accordance with the present invention.
FIG. 2 is a diagram of a parcel including a fluorescent ink 40 fiduciary mark located within the destination address block of the parcel.
FIG. 3 is a flow diagram of the process for reading package information carried out by the system of FIG. 1.
FIG. 4 is a flow diagram of the preferred method for 45 processing image data provided by the imaging system that forms a part of the system,of FIG. 1.
FIG. 5 is a flow diagram of the preferred method for correcting incorrectly decoded destination address data. ^
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE
The present invention provides a novel system and method for reading package information. Generally 55 described, the system includes an imaging system that provides a digital image of a surface of a package that is moving on a conveyor belt. The image includes a bar code and destination address that are provided on the package surface. A label decoding system processes the image from 60 the imaging system and decodes the bar code and the destination address data. The destination address data is validated by checking the address against the United States Postal Service's ZIP+4 database, which contains all of the valid addresses in the United States. If the destination 65 address was decoded incorrectly, the portion of the image that includes the destination address is displayed on an
image display workstation, along with a list of possible addresses from the database. An operator reads the destination address data from the display and manually enters it into the computer terminal or selects the correct address from a displayed list of possible addresses. After the destination address has been validated or manually entered, the bar code data and destination address data are combined to form a unified package record, which provides efficient means for automatically tracking and sorting packages. This data may be stored in a database or printed on labels and affixed to the package.
Before describing the present invention in additional detail, it is useful to discuss the nomenclature of the specification. Portions of the detailed description that follows are represented largely in terms of processes and symbolic representations of operations performed by computer components, including a central processing unit (CPU), memory storage devices for the CPU, and connected display devices. These operations include the manipulation of data by the CPU and the maintenance of these data within data structures resident in one or more of the memory storage devices. The symbolic representations are the means used by those skilled in the art of computer programming and computer construction to most effectively convey teachings and discoveries to others skilled in the art.
For the purposes of this discussion, a process or portions thereof may be generally conceived to be a sequence of computer-executed steps leading to a desired result. These steps generally require physical manipulations of physical quantities. Usually, though not necessarily, these quantities take the form of electrical, magnetic, or optical signals capable of being stored, transferred, combined, compared, or otherwise manipulated. It is conventional for those skilled in the art to refer to these signals as bits, values, elements, symbols, characters, terms, objects, numbers, records, files or the like. It should be kept in mind, however, that these and similar terms should be associated with appropriate physical quantities for computer operations, and that these terms are merely conventional labels applied to physical quantities that exist within and during operation of the computer.
It should also be understood that manipulations within the computer are often referred to in terms such as adding, comparing, moving, etc. which are often associated with manual operations performed by a human operator. In most cases, it will be apparent that these steps are performed by a computer without requiring input from an operator. In some cases, the operations described herein are machine operations performed in conjunction with a human operator that interacts with the computer. The machines used for performing the operation of the present invention include general purpose digital computers or other similar computing devices.
In addition, it should be understood that no particular programming language is provided, and that the programs, processes, methods, etc. described herein are not limited to any particular computer or apparatus Those skilled in the art will appreciate that there are many computers and operating systems which may be used in practicing the instant invention and therefore no detailed computer program could be provided which would be applicable to these many different systems. Each user of a particular computer or operating system will be aware of the program modules and tools that are most appropriate for that user's needs and purposes.
Referring now the drawings, in which like numerals represent like elements throughout the several figures, the present invention will be described.
THE SYSTEM FOR READING PACKAGE
FIG. 1 illustrates a system 10 for reading and decoding package information as packages travel on a conveyor belt. The system 10 includes an imaging system 12 and a label decoding system 14. Generally described, the preferred imaging system 12 is a two-camera system that includes a high resolution over-the-belt (OTB) camera 16 and a fiduciary mark detector 24, which includes the second camera. The high resolution OTB camera 16 and fiduciary mark detector 24 are mounted above a conveyor belt 18 that carries packages 20a—c in the direction of arrow 22. Together, the high resolution OTB camera 16 and fiduciary mark detector 24 ascertain the position and orientation of a fluorescent ink fiduciary mark located within a destination address block on the surface of a package, capture an image of the top surface of the package, and provide the image and the location and orientation of the fiduciary mark to the label decoding system 14. The label decoding system 14 includes 2Q general purpose and high performance computers and data storage facilities. The label decoding system 14 is connected to an image server 29, which is connected to at least one image display workstation 30a-c, and to a label printer 32. The label decoding system 14 locates and decodes machine 2J readable package identification data (e.g., a bar code) and destination address data contained in the image. This package identification data and destination address data are combined to form a unified package record, which may be stored in a database or printed in machine readable form on 3Q a label and affixed to the package.
FIG. 2 illustrates the top surface 34 of a package 20 that is processed by the preferred system 10. The top surface 34 of each package 20 includes package tracking information in the form of a machine readable code or symbol such as a bar 35 code 36. The package tracking information represented by the bar code uniquely identifies the package and distinguishes it from the other packages in the delivery system. The top surface of the package also includes a destination address 38, which typically consists of alphanumeric text 40 arranged in two or more lines. The destination address 38 is located in an area referred to as the destination address block 40. A fiduciary mark such as fluorescent ink fiduciary mark 42 is located approximately in the center of the destination address block 40 in the same area as the text defining the 45 destination address. The fiduciary mark 42 is applied to the destination address block 40 by the shipper or by an agent of the small package delivery company. This may be accomplished by using a rubber stamp in the shape of the desired fiduciary mark to apply fluorescent ink to the package 50 surface. Those skilled in the art will appreciate that other types of fiduciary marks may be used.
Referring again to FIG. 1, the components and operation of the imaging system 12 and the label decoding system 14 will be described in additional detail. In addition to the high 55 resolution OTB camera 16 and fiduciary mark detector 24, the imaging system 12 includes a package height sensor 26, and an illumination source 28. As packages are transported by the conveyor belt 18 the packages 20a—c first pass under the fiduciary mark detector 24, which detects a fiduciary 60 mark in order to determine the location and orientation of the destination address block. The package height sensor 26 is a commercially available light curtain, and is used to determined the height of the package before it passes beneath the high resolution OTB camera 16. The height information 65 from the height sensor 26 is used by the high resolution camera's focusing system. This permits the high resolution
camera 16 to accurately focus on the top surface of the package 20c as it moves beneath the camera. The illumination source 28 illuminates the top surface of the package 20c as it passes beneath the high resolution camera 16. The location and orientation information are provided to the label decoding system 14 along with the image from the high resolution camera 16.
The conveyor belt system is used to transport packages through a terminal facility. In the preferred system 10, the conveyor belt 18 is 16 inches wide and carries up to 3,600 packages per hour while moving at a rate of up to 100 feet per minute. The packages 20a—c vary in height and may be arbitrarily oriented on the conveyor belt 18. The conveyor belt 18 moves each package beneath the fiduciary mark detector 24 and high resolution camera 16 in single file, and with some amount of space between them. The packages are separated by a device known as a singulator. A suitable singulator is described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,372,238 to Bonnet, entitled "Method and Apparatus for Singularizing Objects."
The conveyor belt 18 includes a belt encoder 44 that is used to determine the speed and position the associated conveyor belt. Those skilled in the art will appreciate that the speed and position of the conveyor are needed in order to synchronize the position of the fiduciary mark, the package height information, and the position of the package as it passes beneath the high resolution camera 16. The belt encoder supplies a signal indicating the speed of the conveyor 18 to the fiduciary mark detector 24 and the high resolution camera 16. The signal from the encoder is used to produce a line clock signal that is used to trigger cycles of the fiduciary mark detector's low resolution camera (i.e., exposures of the line of CCD pixels comprising the low resolution camera). Each cycle captures a row of the image of the surface of a parcel as it moves past the fiduciary mark detector 24. The belt encoder 44 is selected to provide a pulse for each cycle of the high resolution camera 16. Those skilled in the art will appreciate that the signal from the encoder allows the line images captured by the fiduciary mark detector 24 and high resolution camera 16 to be assembled by the label decoding system 14 into twodimensional images with the correct aspect ratios. A more detailed description of the interaction between an OTB camera, conveyor belt, height information processor, and belt encoder is provided in U.S. Pat. No. 5,291,564 to Shah, entitled "System and Method for Acquiring an Optical Target," which is incorporated herein by reference.
A suitable fiduciary mark detector is described in pending U.S. application Ser. No. 08/419,176, filed Apr. 10, 1995, and entitled "Method for Locating the Position and Orientation of a Fiduciary Mark," which is assigned to the assignee of the present invention and is incorporated herein by reference. The fiduciary mark detector 24 includes a low resolution CCD camera, a video processor, and an ultraviolet light source for illuminating the fluorescent ink that forms the fiduciary mark. The conveyor belt 18 moves a package 20a through the field of view of the low resolution CCD camera. The video processor controls the operation of the low resolution camera and sequentially transmits a one-bit (i.e., black/white) video signal corresponding to the image captured by the low resolution camera to the label decoding system 14. The preferred low resolution camera is a low resolution, monochrome, 256 pixel line-scan type camera such as a Thompson TH7806Aor TH7931D. The ultraviolet light source illuminates the package 20a as it is conveyed through the viewing area of the low resolution camera, which captures an image of the surface of the package 20a. The low resolution camera is fitted with a commercially