Wireless ID apps gaining foothold beyond military
Radio frequency identification (RFID) has been around for a while some would argue 50 years but has only now entered the mainstream.
The technology uses radio frequency waves to transmit information about objects. RFID tags, tiny silicon-based devices, fundamentally act like bar codes. But the similarities end there.
RFID tags generate much more information than bar codes do. RFID readers, which are equivalent to bar code scanners, can simultaneously pull information from many tags, while bar code scanners process items one at a time. In addition, RFID technology breaks through bar codes' line-of-sight limitation.
RFID's advantages have attracted the likes of retail giant Wal-Mart and the Defense Department. Wal-Mart officials require their top suppliers to use RFID tags. DOD officials have a mandate to use the tags as they try to better handle the vast quantities of materiel they ship worldwide.
Such high-visibility customers have put RFID on the map and piqued the interest of numerous organizations. In the government market, RFID is rapidly moving beyond DOD.
The Energy Department, Homeland Security Department, NASA and the Social Security Administration are among the civilian agencies pursuing RFID. And applications of the technology vary. At least one agency uses RFID to manage hazardous materials, while others deploy it to track animals.
Whatever the use, RFID deployments must be handled with care, experts say. Agency officials will not find a one-size-fits-all solution. RFID tags differ in type, capabilities and cost. Officials may need to tailor a buffer layer between RFID data and back-office applications.
But the benefits can be considerable for those who thoughtfully plan deployments.
"RFID represents, conservatively, an incremental improvement over bar code [technology], which represents an incremental improvement over the hand recording of information," said J. Rollins, manager of the civilian sector at Manugistics Group, a supply-chain solutions provider. "Each represents a tremendous breakthrough in the reliability and accuracy of information."
A slow buildup
RFID dates back to at least 1948 and a report by Harry Stockman titled "Communication by Means of Reflected Power." The buildup to widespread adoption of RFID technology has been gradual, however.
In government, animal tracking emerged as an early use of RFID. Officials at Energy's Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) began using the technology in 1986 to monitor the movement of fish through the administration's network of dams, said Scott Bettin, a fish biologist at the agency.
RFID tags also have been placed on railcars and affixed to motor vehicles to electronically pay tolls. But cost and lack of standardization hindered broader deployment. The maturation of standards, however, has paved the road to greater acceptance.
In the latest round of RFID deployment, DOD officials are using the technology to better track goods along the supply chain. "DOD has a very specific business problem," Rollins said. "They are deploying large amounts of assets overseas, thousands of containers. They have to understand the contents of those containers."
Not to be left behind, civilian agencies have also begun to embrace RFID.
As with DOD, logistics and inventory management rank among the most frequent civilian-sector applications of RFID technology. SSA officials are expected to initiate an upgraded warehouse system this month, which will include an RFID component. They will use the technology to track inventory and process orders for pamphlets and forms.
An SSA printing vendor delivered three large shipments of RFID tags in March to the agency's backup warehouse. "The tag information included the inventory control number, quantity and Serialized Shipping Container Code," said Gary Orem, an SSA information technology specialist.
The tagged products will be moved to another SSA warehouse where orders are prepared. Starting this month, agency employees will read the tag information and update the warehouse system in real time, Orem said. SSA officials believe the RFID solution will improve the accuracy of order fulfillment and reduce costly errors.
In addition to inventory management, animal tracking remains an important application. BPA officials plan to use 1.1 million implantable RFID tags this year to monitor fish in the Columbia River and its tributaries in the Northwest, Bettin said. They can track fish at 200 sites around the basin.
The Agriculture Department's National Animal Identification System uses RFID to track cattle and other animals. The system's goal is to rapidly identify animals and facilities that have come in contact with diseases of concern, according to USDA officials.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, tops the list of those diseases. Another is chronic wasting disease, a related ailment that affects deer and elk. USDA officials have shipped 26,000 RFID tags this year to states to help prevent the spread of the disease to domesticated herds, a USDA spokeswoman said.
Civilian agencies also use RFID technology for security and safety issues. For example, DHS officials will begin testing RFID in July for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program. The tests will occur in Arizona, New York state and Washington state. Officials will issue automatic identifiers to foreign visitors to record their arrivals and departures, according to DHS officials.
Officials at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center are examining the possibility of using RFID to monitor the location and movement of chemicals. The test project, called ChemSecure, relays information about the shipment and storage of chemicals to the center's hazardous materials management system. Officials at the base have used bar codes on chemical containers since 1995.
Ralph Anton, chemical program manager at Dryden Flight Research Center, said center officials started considering RFID as a way to manage chemicals because the technology requires fewer people and resources.
The center's test project involves not only RFID but also other sensor networks that take temperature readings and provide access control. An Oracle 10g application integrates the sensor networks, Anton said.
How it works
Although uses of RFID vary, the basic components of the technology are microchip-based tags that emit radio signals and readers that capture those signals.
Tags can be active, passive or semi-passive. Active tags include batteries that enable them to send a signal to a reader. The signal can be transmitted up to 1,500 feet, said Mohsen Moazami, vice president of the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems.
Passive tags lack batteries and tap readers for power instead. The signal range is generally less than 30 feet, but the tags are cheaper than their active counterparts. Passive RFID tags can cost as little as 20 cents each when purchased in bulk.
Active tags range from $3 to $15 on average, said Vijay Sarathy, director of RFID product marketing and strategy at Sun Microsystems.
Semi-passive tags offer a compromise. A battery runs the microchip's circuitry, but it still needs to tap power from a reader to communicate. The battery boost, however, extends the range of semi-passive tags to 300 feet, Moazami said. He said prices range from $2 to $20 per tag.
Organizations may use a mix of active and passive tags. Typically, active tags are used with high-value assets, while passive ones are used with higher-volume, lower-value items.
Reader devices, meanwhile, come in fixed-location and portable forms. The fixed stations can be set up in a warehouse or along a river basin, as in BPA's case. The portable devices resemble handheld bar code readers, and some of the same vendors, such as Intermec Technologies and Symbol Technologies, manufacture the readers.
Most people associate RFID with tags and readers, but those are only part of a solution. RFID deployments need a buffer to absorb and understand the vast amounts of data, some industry executives say.
"What we do with the data is really more important than anything else," said William Mancuso, a Science Applications International Corp. employee who serves as chief enterprise architect for DOD Logistics and Materiel Readiness.
DOD's passive RFID implementation uses webMethods' business integration software as a middleware layer. RFID data doesn't directly hit DOD's back-office applications.
Instead, the webMethods solution receives the data and makes it available for enterprise resource planning and other applications as needed, Mancuso said.
"It doesn't make sense to take all of the data from the readers and send it back directly to corporate systems," Sarathy said. "You need some kind of filtering done at the edge."
Eric Hermelee, vice president of marketing at Wavelink, said middleware can be positioned at the edge, with software residing on a server at a warehouse or other remote location. Wavelink makes middleware that sends RFID data to host systems.
Alternatively, middleware can run in a central data center, although most executives favor distributed models.
The need for middleware underscores a warning about RFID deployment: More data doesn't necessarily mean valuable data.
"We are going to collect more data," Moazami said. "But my proposition is [that] if we don't do the right thing turn that data into actionable insights it won't add value."
Moore is a freelance writer based in Syracuse, N.Y.
NEXT STORY: Comstor prepares wireless seminars