vol 9, issue 8

RFID tags along with the Internet of Things

11 August 2014
By Chris Edwards
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Marijuana cultivation, Colorado

Marijuana cultivation is legal in Colorado, but the rules say that each plant must be RFID-tagged and monitored

Walmart store

US retail big-hitter Walmart was an enthusiastic early-adopter of RFID for retail and remains a supporter of the technology

An RFID tag on a t-shirt

The ability to print RFID tags could have a significant effect on cost - and adoption

FastPass at Walt Disney's Dumbo attraction

The Walt Disney Company’s MyMagic+ system uses RF-based technology to identify its visitor experience

A bee with a RFID stuck to its back

Buzz on: Australian bees have been fitted with RFID ‘backpacks’

RFID was the prototype for the entity-connected domains now being brought into the Internet of Things – but are the two technologies necessarily destined to contend with each other? Renewed interest in RFID suggests that it still has an important part to play.

Some 15 years after the term was first coined, technology companies have at last latched onto the Internet of Things (IoT) as the driver for the next wave of their market growth. However, an earlier attempt to do some of what the IoT now promises has demonstrated that they could be in for a prolonged wait if they fail to heed the lessons learned by the more mature technology.

When it emerged on the back of cheap silicon-chip production towards the end of the 1990s, radio-frequency identification (RFID), termed as a generic technology, promised to tag the world electronically. Using a chip attached to an antenna, whenever the tag passes near a scanner the radio waves provide just enough power for the tag to fetch a code from memory and deliver it by radio to the scanner. The technology makes it possible to track goods as they travel around the world, just as long as there is a scanner at each point. RFID has proved a successful technology that in several ways presaged the IoT. The question now is: how will it fit into the brave new IoT-enabled world?

IDTechEx is a research firm that has tracked RFID developments for many years. At the company's Internet of Things conference in Berlin in April 2014 its CEO Raghu Das predicted that cheap passive RFID tags will play a large part in the IoT. They can provide much of the data that smart sensors collect, pointing to the role RFID had in coining the phrase in the first place.

The MIT Auto-ID Center tried hard to popularise the term 'Internet of Things' when it was set up at the end of the 1990s to investigate emerging applications for RFID. However, Das stressed, there are important lessons for the IoT in the RFID experience – particularly when the core technology obscures the potential applications.

Simply changing the way that companies sell systems based on RFID has improved adoption by customers, or as one supplier candidly told IDTechEx: "When we called ourselves an 'RFID company' it was a disaster." When the supplier focused on the problems RFID could solve, sales improved.

Meanwhile, market-watching analyst Gartner developed the hype cycle, a graph that has captured the pattern of premature euphoria, excessive despair and eventual acceptance that almost all new high-technologies seem destined to pursue. It doesn't take long to work out that the IoT is powering up the incline towards the 'Peak of Inflated Expectations', to use Gartner's terms. At the end of Q2/2013, the firm put IoT as nearing the peak in 2013, following hotly behind Big Data. Gartner set the time before IoT reaches the 'Plateau of Productivity' at more than 10 years.

The idea that low-cost sensor nodes would proliferate into all aspects of life echoes perhaps the first IoT-like application that, just over 10 years ago, was making its way closer to the peak. In mid-2003, supermarket giant Wal-mart announced that it would push its major suppliers into putting ID tags on their products that would respond to automated radio-frequency readers, so that the mega-retailer could track them more easily through its warehouses and shops.

A few months later, EPCglobal was formed as the successor to the Auto-ID Center, promising standards that would ensure tags would work with the widest variety of readers. It looked then as though RFID had arrived. If big-hitter Wal-mart was going to do it, surely every retailer would have to implement RFID to avoid losing even more market share?

At first it looked like a retail revolution in the tipping, but then... it all went quiet. A couple of years later, one of the biggest consumer consumables brands in the world, Procter & Gamble, argued that it was finding it hard to justify the introduction of RIFD even if the tags cost less than three US cents. Some products were downright resistant to RF tagging – the dishwasher tablets the company sold in the US were packaged in foil and then put into a foil-lined box that could shield the tags from readers.

Companies gradually found business cases for some classes of product – often with more than a dash of in-house innovation – and some have started mass rollout. Instances of progress are out there, but it's taken a decade to come about. Earlier in 2014, UK giant Marks & Spencer (M&S) embarked on a mass rollout of RFID, primarily for clothing. This marks the extension of a long-standing partnership between M&S and technology provider Avery Dennison.

The change has come through less attention on tagging for tagging's sake – which put the focus on tag cost alone – and the cost of lost clothes. Retailers such as M&S have found that they can lose around 6 per cent of sales because sales staff cannot find clothes of the right size for the customer. Often that is because the shop has run out of stock but as much as 25 per cent of those lost sales are for clothes that are stashed in the wrong place, so staff are unable to find them.

Being tucked away in obscure corners has, arguably, become the fate for a lot of RFID applications, but they add up to a large combined value. According to IDTechEx, cumulative tag sales for retail applications reached almost 6.3 billion by the start of 2014, only beaten by contactless smartcards and payment key fobs at 7.4 billion. The process has even extended to animals and plants.

The US state of Colorado allows marijuana to be grown by accredited farmers. To account for each plant, growers have to tag them using RFID technology. State officials now turn up unexpectedly at farms to check for pot plants armed with RFID scanners to see if plants have gone missing. If a plant dies, the farmers need to comply with a procedure to have it – and its tag – deleted from the statewide database.

One of the most unexpected applications is in oil prospecting where tags can be used to open and close wells. Oil companies do not simply push a drill bit down a hole and wait for oil to gush out. Instead, the borehole is lined with casing elements designed to stop water getting in and mixing with the oil.

Drillers fire perforating guns into the side of the pipe at the depth of the oil reservoirs to allow the liquid to flow out. The problem is firing at the right depth. Just over a decade ago, Marathon Oil came up with the idea of using RFID tags. One method is to put the tags, which can also be used for inventory management, into the casing elements. A scanner fitted to the perforating gun reads each tag as it descends, firing when it passes the one at the depth of the oil reservoir.

After almost 15 years RFID is a highly diverse sector that, according to IDTechEx, is worth more than $9bn worldwide. In a decade's time that could have expanded to $35bn, with retail alone accounting for much of today's total RFID market. Unless the IoT takes a different path, it will be a similar long-term, quiet revolution for that area of technology as well. 

Further information

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Critical applications ARE pushing technological development

RFID technologies fight a continual campaign with far less-electronically-intensive techniques. Subtleties in implementation mean markets that look, at first glance, to be ideal ground for RFID can end up using far cheaper, less technologically-oriented systems. Attempts to bring down the cost of the RFID devices themselves are also fraught as, in moving to technologies such as printed electronics, the compromises that need to be made lead to systems that cannot properly combat counterfeiting and similar problems.

In a demonstration at the 2013 BlackHat Conference last year, security specialist Fran Brown of Bishop Fox showed how it was possible to use a high-power scanner tucked away in a messenger bag or backpack to read the codes from RFID door-entry codes. Because many of these systems used very simple tags that simply store a serial number, they could easily be cloned and used to gain access to buildings.

Brown said he developed the systems to help with computer penetration testing - many server rooms are protected with this type of system.

"This is low-frequency stuff for breaking into buildings," Brown declared, "but these attacks will only become more common as we go on. For example, [The Walt] Disney [Company] is going over to RFID for everything. People are finding more and more uses for RFID that will be more fun to do penetration testing for."

One way to protect the data on cards is to move to more sophisticated challenge-response systems similar to those used on SIM (subscriber identity module) cards, and which can typically be found in RFID tags that operate at higher radio frequencies. Companies often favour cheaper approaches, however, potentially to the point of removing the need for RFID itself.

The Disney initiative Brown referred to has been rolled-out at the company's Walt Disney World Resort, Florida. MyMagic+ is an RFID-based three-tier experience personalisation concept comprising the MyDisneyExperience.com website, the Disney FastPass+ reservation system (to pre-book in-park attractions), and MagicBand, a smart RF-enabled wristband that visitors use to validate their 'experiences'. An RF-enabled card can be used instead of a MagicBand.

The MyMagic+ ensemble obviates the need for conventional ticketing. "The MagicBand uses RF technology to connect guests to their plans and entitlements safely and securely," The Disney Company says. "Guests simply touch their band to touch points in places such as resort room doors, theme park and water park entrances, FastPass+ entrances and cast mobile devices." Disney says that it has granted, or applied for, more than ten patents on the MagicBand.

Although RFID has been proposed as a way to combat counterfeit pharmaceuticals, this is not the way that this industry is moving. As legislation is tightened up around the world to make drugs traceable, the focus has moved back to the optical barcode.

Instead of using a relatively expensive RF tag to encode some kind of digital certificate, the barcode is just a serial number. By using 2D barcodes similar to those used by QR (quick response) codes, however, they can be very long, unique serial numbers. Companies that manufacture and package drugs will have to account for each one in an online database, including boxes that were damaged and subsequently destroyed in a factory or warehouse so those numbers cannot be reused by counterfeiters.

To check a box or bottle, a pharmacist is meant to scan the barcode on the box. Under this system, most of the authentication happens in the back-end database. A query to the online database will reveal which type of drug it is meant to be in case counterfeiters have simply chosen random codes to make their products look legitimate. But the profits available to counterfeiters are large, and they inevitably lead to an arms race between the tag developers and hackers.

As demonstrated with RFID-based door locks, systems that have had their costs pared to the bone are especially vulnerable. As new weaknesses are discovered, more sophisticated RFID-based systems may stage a return.

Tag prices and price tags near tipping point?

Although the focus has shifted away from tag price to how much money applying tags can save, users are looking to how they could use RFID if the technology was cheaper to apply. Printing the electronics, rather than relying on silicon, may be how to get there for a wide variety of industries.

Toymaker Hasbro has already applied RFID to some of its products including a cooking set that uses the tags to tell a reader in the 'stove' what is sitting on top of it. Senior electronics engineer Tony Offley-Shore said at the recent Printed Electronics Europe conference in Berlin that bringing down the cost of RFID would allow more widespread use in the company's products.

Sophie Laurenson, project manager in the new technologies group at medical-device maker Abbott Diagnostics, agreed: "The product that would have the most direct impact on our business would be printed, ultra-cheap RFID," she said.

As it does not need expensive wafer fabs and allows electronic circuitry to be deposited directly on a product's surface, printed electronics should slash the cost of relatively simple devices like passive RFID tags to the point where they make sense in everyday consumables. Sounds promising, but it is taking time to get there.

Companies such as UK-based Pragmatic Printing are working on printed versions of NFC to be used in tags, although printed transistors are limited in terms of speed compared to silicon. Philip Pieters, director of business development at IMEC says researchers at the institute's Holst Centre have made a working RF transponder. Again costs remain high, which is leading to companies looking at other possibilities.

"The price point offered by conventional technology is very hard to compete with," says Juha Maijala, project manager at packaging company Stora-Enso. "Our thinking is to take some process steps away from our customers, apply the RFID labels to packaging and by saving few steps, we can save a few euros."

Where printed electronics could make inroads without competing directly with silicon is to pull in other functions, using the ability of printed electronics to become a bigger part of the Internet of Things.

"In the field of logistics there is a large market for tracking perishable goods. The idea is to implement on these goods smart tags that monitor the conditions in which they are moved around," explains Danick Briand, research team leader at technology institute EPFL ('cole polytechnique f'd'rale de Lausanne) in Switzerland. "There are different parameters of interest, such as temperature and humidity for food and medicines and shock for fragile items. Using printed methods can reduce the cost for larger deployment of these systems."

Although it uses electrical contacts to report status rather than RF, Thin Film Electronics has developed a printed temperature logger to detect whether products have got too warm on their way to or from the warehouse. Adding MEMS for shock detection and RF may call for the printed circuitry to be combined with a small silicon chip until cheap high-frequency printed transistors become available.

Tags take to the air as sensor-carrying bees become data gathers

Honey bees in Australia are being fitted with tiny RFID-enabled sensors to help researchers study the insects' relationship with the environment. The CSIRO-led swarm-sensing programme aims to improve honey bee pollination and productivity on farms as well as gain insight into the drivers of bee colony collapse disorder (CCD), a condition that is damaging honey bee populations worldwide. Up to 5,000 sensors, measuring 2.5 x 2.5mm, are being fitted to the backs of the bees in Hobart, Tasmania, which are then released into the wild.

The sensors are tiny RFID devices that respond when the insect passes a checkpoint. The information is transmitted to a location where researchers can use the signals to build a comprehensive 3D model and visualise how these insects move through the landscape.

Project leader Dr Paulo de Souza explains: "Around one-third of the food we eat relies on pollination, but honey bee populations around the world are crashing because of the Varroa mite and CCD. Thankfully, Australia is currently free from both of those threats."

The research programme – which began in January 2014 – will also look at the impacts of agricultural pesticides on honey bees by monitoring insects that feed at sites with trace amounts of common chemicals. To attach the sensors, the bees are refrigerated for a short period, which puts them into a rest state. After a few minutes, they wake up and return to their hive. The process does not seem to impair their normal activities.

The next stage of the project is to reduce the size of the sensors to only 1mm so they can be attached to smaller insects.

By Lorna Sharpe
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