RFID Innovations Deepen Market Penetration

Jan. 16, 2007
As RFID becomes further entrenched in applications ranging from retail to healthcare, companies are developing technologies that will add even more uses.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is widely used to identify and track objects, animals, or people. Its applications range from tagging retail goods and inventory control to enabling payment, providing secure identification, and tracking animals. Much of the popularity of RFID tags stems from the fact that they are low in cost, disposable, and easy to use. Essentially, each tag houses a miniature chip transmitter that stores an identification number. An antenna allows the chip to transmit that ID number to a reader. As long as the reader uses the right RF signal, it can read the information from the tag. These characteristics are not fixed, however. RFID is still evolving. Thanks to ongoing development and innovation, the technology will add capabilities and expand its reach.

An example of such an innovation is a new active-RFID platform. Although RFID usually offers minimal security, this platform plans to serve high-value assets. It hails from Hi-G-Tek (North Bethesda, MD). Rather than just detect where an asset is, the company's technology also checks its status or condition in real time. The platform relies on full two-way active RFID communication with miniaturized battery-operated electronic tags, seals, and locks. Using these components, readers can reliably control objects while covering areas of a few hundred meters. Aside from collecting data, the readers are monitored from remote centers in severe environments and over long time periods.

At the heart of this active-RFID platform is a chip set, which integrates the device's monitoring functions and the low-frequency circuitry used for close-range communication. These aspects operate seamlessly with the long-range, high-frequency communication channel. In addition, an antenna is integrated in both the printed-circuit board (PCB) and the chip set without any loss in efficiency. To optimize the integrated circuit's (IC's) capabilities, microcontroller software algorithms, communication protocols, and scheduling are employed. They promise to keep the PCB component count and power consumption to a minimum.

While this platform seeks to make RFID suitable for high-value assets, another product suite plans to speed the development of turnkey supply-chain solutions. This product family comes from the Savi Group, which was formed this past November by Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, MD). Aside from commercial customers, the company plans to serve the US Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Defense (including the US Transportation Command and Defense Logistics Agency), and port and terminal operators.

Essentially, Savi provides integrated real-time information solutions and services for securing and managing global supply chains. The Savi Group aligns Lockheed Martin's decision-support system expertise for large government In-Transit Visibility (ITV), cargo security, and asset-management efforts with Savi Technology's real-time, RFID-based data collection and management capabilities for supply chains. Savi Networks provides information services, which are based on wireless data transmissions, on the location, security, and condition of cargo shipments as they are transported end-to-end throughout the global supply chain. Such products could obviously help the US strengthen its port security measures. In fact, one of the company's initial charters will be to leverage the existing Savi Networks joint venture between Savi Technology and Hutchison Port Holdings, the world's largest port operator.

The company's data-collection level of tags, readers, and signposts are all built on its EchoPoint technology. By employing a unique multi-frequency design and three-element system architecture, this technology achieves both reliable long-range communication and short-range locating capability. Savi's suite of active RFID tags includes general asset tags, which have a smaller form factor and a lower price point for the real-time tracking of supply-chain assets. In addition, the high-performance data-rich tags can store up to 128 kB of data. They are designed to last the life of the asset. Finally, Savi's SensorTags were designed to secure and monitor the integrity and condition of containers and their contents. The company's fixed RFID devices, the Savi Fixed Reader and Savi Signposts, collect data at fixed locations throughout the supply chain. The company also offers Mobile RFID Systems. These mobile devices collect data in an online or offline store-and-forward mode. A variety of software solutions round out these offerings.

Government agencies and the military are certainly increasing their use of RFID technologies. Ever since Wal-Mart committed to using RFID, however, the technology also has experienced steady growth in retail applications. Here, RFID is generally used in the tagging of apparel, books, pallets, and cases. Through a joint RFID applications development program, Hyan Microelectronics Co. Ltd. (Shenzhen, China) and Parelec, Inc. (Rocky Hill, NJ) developed an anti-counterfeiting smart label. This label affixes inside or outside a product package. The breakable paper-base tag is printed with a silver antenna. The 30 35-mm label is designed to break instantly if someone tries to remove it, thereby demonstrating a product's authenticity. The anti-counterfeit tags, which are engineered to ISO 14443 A/15693, typically operate at 13.56 MHz. They can be equipped with user-programmable memory of 512 b or 1 kb.

In addition, the two companies developed RFID-based transit tickets with crease-proof antennas. Thanks to a unique manufacturing process, the antennas will continue to function despite being pulled and bent. Last month, Parelec also made news with its acquisition of Precision Systems (Raanana, Israel). Parelec's expertise in mid-range, passive RFID tag technology will now be coupled with Precision Systems' expertise in active RFID and real-time location systems. The companies hope to eventually enable the tracking of products from item level to end use.

Typically, RFID tags are one-time use only. Yet many individuals in the retail sector are recognizing a need to track assets as they move through the supply chain. The Kennedy Group's RFID group (Willoughby, OH), for example, has expanded its line of reusable RFID products. The SmartCard, SmartCard Plus, and SmartCard Premium can now be embedded in or clipped onto reusable transport packaging (containers, racks, and pallets) to track assets as they move through the supply chain (see figure). To reduce overall cost, the cards can be programmed and used multiple times. The SmartCards operate in the ultra-high-frequency (915-MHz) and high-frequency (13.56-MHz) RFID spectrums. Despite the great number of RFID products already on the market, a large number of new developments are in the works. For example, Mems-ID Pty Ltd. (Melbourne, Australia) is developing a tracking solution that targets the logistics and safety requirements in the medical devices market. The company's technology is based on a microelectromechanical-systems (MEMS) chip that is mechanical rather than electronic. As such, it promises to provide significant advantages over current electronic RFID chips. For instance, Mems-ID chips can be placed directly onto medical devices, such as surgical instruments. They also can withstand high-temperature autoclave and irradiation sterilization processes.

Over the past year, Mems-ID completed a proof-of-concept chip and reader system. It is currently working toward a beta chip and interrogator algorithm. Initially, the company is focused on developing its technology to track surgical instruments. It expects to undertake a trial with a major orthopedic device company by the middle of this year.

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RFID developments are even targeting cell phones and other handheld devices. Last month, Gentag, Inc. (Washington, DC) announced the issuance of Patent 7,148,803, which is entitled, "Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Based Sensor Networks." This patent is actually co-owned between Altivera, LLC—a Gentag-operated company— and Symbol Technologies (Motorola). Gentag and Symbol each have independent assignment rights. The broad patent covers the uses of personal wireless devices like cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and laptops as low-cost wireless readers for RFID sensors. It also covers the creation of RFID-sensor networks for consumer, industrial, and government applications. The patent provides the basis for the creation of a next-generation wireless technology that will put low-cost wireless readers in the hands of consumers, wireless networks, geolocation, and disposable wireless sensors for various market applications. The emergence of nearfield communications (NFC) is expected to accelerate the availability of RFID cell phones.

RFID-reader-enabled cell phones are either currently available or under development with major cell-phone manufacturers worldwide for both the 13.56MHz and ultra-high (Gen-2) frequencies. In the future, some market forecasts predict that up to one out of two phones will be RFID-reader-enabled. By combining RFID cell phones and RFID sensors with cellular networks or the Internet, the consumer will be able to read any RFID sensor tag for almost any application. Examples include using an RFID cell phone to ensure that a drug interaction is unlikely to occur before taking a given medication. Gentag is especially focused on combining RFID cell phones with RFID sensors for specialized diagnostic applications. Under existing Gentag patents, RFID sensors can be integrated into low-cost disposable diagnostic devices like "smart" disposable wireless skin patches or personal drug-delivery systems. They can then be read directly with a cell phone.

These examples offer just a small sampling of the many emerging developments and applications for RFID technology. Keep in mind that RFID's development varies according to different geographic regions. Some countries are heavily investing in the technology while a few have only lightly adopted it (see sidebar). Still others are using RFID for applications that many had not even thought suitable. Clearly, RFID is already a technology success story. It has become entrenched in many sectors ranging from retail to military. Yet it continues to find new applications—just as engineers keep unveiling new RFID capabilities.

About the Author

Nancy Friedrich | Editor-in-Chief

Nancy Friedrich began her career in technical publishing in 1998. After a stint with sister publication Electronic Design as Chief Copy Editor, Nancy worked as Managing Editor of Embedded Systems Development. She then became a Technology Editor at Wireless Systems Design, an offshoot of Microwaves & RF. Nancy has called the microwave space “home” since 2005.

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