Military Embedded Systems

Hope for the RFID-pressed


February 23, 2007

Don Dingee

Contributing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

There seem to be as many negative voices ready to declare imminent failure of RFID technology as there were voices proclaiming its instant runaway success a few short years ago. It is depressing, but it looks more than a bit overdone.

You have probably read all the hype against RFID lately: massive but unfulfilled revenue projections; the failed Alien technology IPO and reports of some vendors losing money; tags anticipated to appear on everything from cereal to cows to C-17-borne cargo containers but rolling out slowly; and images of security and privacy breaches from skimming (unauthorized reads, usually from long distance) of passports and e-wallets by evildoers. There seem to be as many negative voices ready to declare imminent failure of RFID technology as there were voices proclaiming its instant runaway success a few short years ago. It is depressing, but it looks more than a bit overdone.

The reality is that RFID early adopters found niches where it works well, and innovators are now proving its worth in larger deployments. Vendors are learning to operate with market-based pricing in applications with reasonable volumes instead of chasing unrealistically aggressive high-volume, low-cost goals. The resulting wave of RFID adoption is starting to look big but will take several years to reach shore with its realistic potential, while smaller waves continue to arrive sooner as more applications deploy successfully.

Your mileage will vary
One point to understand in these initial waves of adoption is that not all RFID systems are created equal. Those who venture in without carefully studying tag and reader technology can get in over their heads quickly.

Most of us immediately think of passive RFID because the potential for item-level tagging in retail and pharmaceutical has received most of the attention to date. Passive tags are those that lie quietly and wait until stimulated by a reader at close range, drawing power through electromagnetic coupling and providing data or being written in response to the reader’s requests. Because of their simplicity, passive tags can be physically small and less expensive. Most of the intelligence is in the reader.

Despite the attention, item-level tag implementations have been moving along a bit more slowly, for three reasons: tags are still relatively expensive, higher usage volumes require a sizable investment in reader systems and software to manage the implementation, and the underlying specifications have been transitioning to a better state of interoperability with the rollout of specifications such as EPC Gen 2. With tags continuing to get less expensive and the EPC Gen 2 format allowing Wal-Mart, the DoD, and others to finally read the same tags, item-level implementations are becoming more common.

According to IDTechEx, more than 20 percent of the total 2006 RFID spent was on active RFID. Active tags contain a battery and transmit information to a reader, so they are generally larger, more sophisticated, and more expensive.

Systems based on active RFID have moved more quickly because they generally track limited quantities of higher value items, can be highly accurate because the tag transmits its data, and have usage models with a containable security and information management challenge. Integrators such as Lockheed Martin’s Savi Technology subsidiary have deployed a number of successful implementations of active RFID.

On the horizon
Coming to a mobile device near you are near-field UHF (or near-field communication) readers and tags. For distances generally less than tens of centimeters, near-field targets ticketing, financial transactions, and similar applications. Readers are now being embedded into mobile devices, with the device providing the network connection to access real-time information after reading pointers from the tags.

Also coming to locations near you are agile RFID readers such as the ThingMagic Mercury5 implementing EPC Gen 2 dense reader mode and applying Software-Defined Radio (SDR) technology. Advances in new specifications such as Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) look to make systems even easier to implement.

We will be in this tug of war between the need for frictionless commerce and the need for privacy and security for some time. It is really a problem for any networking technology, especially wireless technology, and it is certainly not unique to RFID. What has drawn the attention and wrath of the pundits is the sensitive nature of RFID uses. These include passports, e-wallets and financial transactions, item-level tags on retail items, and others. But that should not stop the technology from progressing and innovative companies from developing techniques and new breakthroughs.

I’m planning to be at RFID World in Dallas in March, meeting folks with new technology and more interesting applications. As always, e-mail your thoughts and ideas to [email protected], especially if you see something interesting on the RFID landscape.


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