Magazine Article | August 25, 2008

RFID + Government = Industry Breakout?

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

The U.S. Army’s recent RFP (request for proposal) for a large RFID (radio frequency identification) deployment could uncover numerous opportunities for the government market.

Integrated Solutions, September 2008

The U.S. Army's May 2008 RFP for an RFID deployment of more than 53,000 passive Gen2 tags, 8,000 handheld and fixed readers, and 600 printers included the use of language such as 'restricted laboratory environment', 'austere marshaling areas', 'regulated materials', and 'weapons issue facilities'. Generally, if you look at material flow, value, volume, and cost justification of RTLS (real-time location systems), military-based deployments of RFID are arguably the take-off point for this technology. Specifically, given the large scale and complexity of the material handling processes that occur daily in the U.S. military, this is a fertile ground for government contractors and the RFID vendor community.

RFID applications, RF (radio frequency) equipment, and installation expertise are mature enough for aggressive deployment and the ability to respond to complex and stringent government requests. The lessons learned in the RFID space over the past few years bode well for high visibility, high performance RTLS systems that don't cause undue risk for stakeholders involved in deployment. The wide variety of tags and readers that are available today will enable variants of differentiated solutions in the field to 'funnel' into to a centralized application. The military's actual administration of security access will likely be more complicated than the deployment itself of an end-to-end RFID solution. RFID technology continues to have increased error correction, smaller form factors, and intelligence while pricing is coming down.

However, there seems to be a disconnect between the viability and business case for deployments of RFID that actually monitor the critical aspect of 'material handling', which is the human element. Until the people handling materials are measured and monitored in the same detailed fashion as the goods and high security assets, one piece of the goal for total visibility is murky.

Government has always been a large consumer of one-way paging. Many government employees, not just federal but city, state, and local workers, still use one-way paging systems that require $4 to $10 of monthly service fees. RFID is not only a onetime buy, but the technology is superior to one-way paging. Also, government employees have building access controls that could be replaced by RFID. . There remains a strong business case for the implementation of RFID in the government sphere.

If you think that RFID has been an uphill climb so far, you probably won't want to bank on a rapid RFID ascent up Capitol Hill. At the federal and U.S. armed services level, the issues of privacy and security will continue to be challenging. That being said, there is an opportunity to deploy proof of concept and successful solutions at the city, state, and local government levels.

Clearly, RFID technology has become affordable and RTLS in-building systems so accurate that the time has come to put a focus on these applications outside of the just the healthcare industry. The healthcare industry has the most obvious potential for RFID, but its implementation is somewhat complicated by being a difficult RF environment. The healthcare industry also provides an excellent example of existing one-way paging systems in use with a RFID solution.

Once the initial workplace privacy issues have been addressed, the ability to track and communicate with in-building/on-campus RFID solutions is a workplace breakthrough. If productivity gains from an RFID system prove to be similar to those of mobile worker-based GPS solutions, government workers could take one day off a week and still get more work accomplished.

These types of solutions, as part of an overall RFID strategy, are a rich vein of business for SMB RFID vendors who have the ability to work with like size municipalities. Clearly, the business need and market opportunities already exist. It is a matter of the RFID vendor community fully developing the proper products to capitalize on this market. In summary, as one who has been in the RF world for almost 20 years, I am encouraged by the government RFID offerings from a product and functionality perspective. I am looking forward to the day when we read about RFID in instances of lives being saved and sensitive material being recovered.