An Introduction to RFID Technology


In recent years, radio frequency identification technology has moved from obscurity into mainstream applications that help speed the handling of manufactured goods and materials. RFID enables identification from a distance, and unlike earlier bar-code technology (see the sidebar), it does so without requiring a line of sight. RFID tags support a larger set of unique IDs than bar codes and can incorporate additional data such as manufacturer, product type, and even measure environmental factors such as temperature. Furthermore, RFID systems can discern many different tags located in the same general area without human assistance. In contrast, consider a supermarket checkout counter, where you must orient each bar-coded item toward a reader before scanning it. So why has it taken over 50 years for this technology to become mainstream? The primary reason is cost. For electronic identification technologies to compete with the rock-bottom pricing of printed symbols, they must either be equally low-cost or provide enough added value for an organization to recover the cost elsewhere. RFID isn’t as cheap as traditional labeling technologies, but it does offer added value and is now at a critical price point that could enable its large-scale adoption for managing consumer retail goods. Here I introduce the principles of RFID, discuss its primary technologies and applications, and review the challenges organizations will face in deploying this technology. RFID principles Many types of RFID exist, but at the highest level, we can divide RFID devices into two classes: active and passive. Active tags require a power source—they’re either connected to a powered infrastructure or use energy stored in an integrated battery. In the latter case, a tag’s lifetime is limited by the stored energy, balanced against the number of read operations the device must undergo. One example of an active tag is the transponder attached to an aircraft that identifies its national origin. Another example is a LoJack device attached to a car, which incorporates cellular technology and a GPS to locate the car if stolen

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