Within the next 10 years we might witness fully automated homes with talking appliances much like we've seen on the futuristic cartoon "The Jetsons." One technology that will play a key role in this transition is RFID (radio frequency identification). RFID comprises a tag(s), readers, and a user interface computer. Unlike bar code technology, RFID systems are a non-line-of-sight solution that can read several tags simultaneously. In the past there have been several obstacles that have kept RFID from gaining acceptance in consumer applications as well as in enterprises. Some of these obstacles included RF transmission distance, tag reader sensitivity, and the high cost of implementing RFID. But, as you will soon read, those obstacles are getting pushed out of the way.
Farther, Faster Tag Reading
As recently as a few years ago, RFID tags and readers could communicate over a distance of only a few feet. Nowadays, thanks to new methods of winding thin wire and advances in silicon technology, which are both used in the RFID antennas, the read range has been beefed up to more than 20 feet. "This breakthrough alone makes RFID a viable option for many enterprises," says Piyush Sodha, CEO of Matrics, Inc. (Columbia, MD), an RFID solutions provider. "RFID readers can be placed on either side of a warehouse loading area that is 40 feet wide, for instance, and be used to read tagged pallets while they are being loaded [or unloaded] from the truck without ever having to manually scan boxes."
Another struggle RFID technology faced just a few years back was a slow read rate. Tagged items could be read at a rate of only a few per second. This factor made RFID little faster than its bar coding counterpart, which was a fraction of the cost to implement. Because of recent improvements in RF data protocols, known as anti-collision algorithms, RFID readers (interrogators) are able to process more than 200 tags at the same time. When the interrogator's signal reaches a batch of tags, all tags start "talking" at the same time, making it very difficult for the reader to "hear." By using a transmission-based algorithm, however, each tag is randomly given a response number, thus creating an order in which it can respond to an RF reader. Using this new feature, a warehouse worker can drive a forklift with fully loaded (tagged) pallets through the dock doors and load the pallets onto a truck without having to slow down or stop as he passes the tag readers. Advances in RF transmission distances and improved tag receptivity can yield time savings of more than two hours per person per shift.
3-D Antennas Cover Every Angle
A third hindrance to RFID progress was the embedded antennas within the tags. Most antennas used to have only one radio wave access point, causing the user to have to orient the tags just right to be read. "Now, antennas have access points along the x, y, and z axes, all configured together and providing much greater reception," says Peter Beno, director of engineering for Perllo (St. Charles, IL), a warehousing and logistics service provider. Furthermore, because of the orthogonal structure of the 3-D antennas, RFID tags no longer suffer from orientation problems. This advancement has caused such an increase in the reliability of the technology that some prisons are even using RFID to track prisoners throughout various buildings as well as to control access to certain buildings or rooms.
ISO Specification Means Greater Flexibility
Another drawback that previously existed within the RFID arena was that each solution was made with proprietary components. This forced companies to purchase their RFID solutions from one vendor. Then the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 15693 specification changed all that. "The ISO 15693 specification defines parameters for RFID solutions that operate in the HF [high frequency] range," says Jack Provenzano, director of RFID systems for Accu-Sort (Telford, PA), an auto ID solutions provider. "The specification defines the parameters for the physical characteristics, RF power and signal interface, and the anti-collision and transmission protocol that chip and reader vendors must follow in order to interface their products with other vendors' components. RFID vendors that operate in the UHF [ultra high frequency] range, however, have not been able to come together and form an agreement on an industry standard." Most RFID vendors predict that within the next three years the RFID solutions operating within the UHF spectrum will come to an agreement on product design and data transmission protocol standards.
All That's Decreasing Is Price
Advances in RFID technology coupled with new RFID standards and data transmission protocols are benefiting RFID end users by lowering costs of the technology. "Just three years ago it cost end users about $10,000 to set up an RFID system on one loading dock door that was less than 20 feet wide," says Sodha. "Now, you can get the same solution for about $1,000 that will read tags twice as far away. Additionally, tag costs have finally broken through the $1 barrier and even below 50 cents if purchased in large quantities."
RFID is making headway to realizing its true potential as an automated, non-line-of-sight technology. Besides making small strides towards pushing us into "The Jetsons" age, advances in RFID technology and standardization are making big strides in automating enterprises right now.