RFID Explained

RFID or Radio Frequency Identification is a rapidly developing technology that in its simplest form allows a chip to be embedded within any object allowing it to be tracked and for it to carry a set of pre determined information. It uses a number of frequency ranges 125 KHz, 134 KHz, 13.56 MHz, 958 MHz and the 2.4 GHz Bluetooth standard. The most widely adopted frequency is 13.56 MHz, the ISO organisation has also issued a number of standard which cover RFID.

The advantages of RFID over the barcode are striking, the tag does not have to be physically scanned or read in any way, so merely being within proximity of a detection unit allows the data to be read, no more creased barcodes, no more swipe cards the impact could be huge. Applications in the security industry were among the first to be trialled RFID is now in use to provide access control for both people and vehicles, RFID is in use in car immobilisers and even animal identification systems.

Key exponents of RFID technology point to expanding usage of the system in smart tags for goods and even smart wristbands for people to wear allowing them certain access of rights, unlike a barcode the tag can be re programmed and re used for example a package due to be shipped can have its tag programmed at each stage of the delivery chain so that if the package is scanned it will reveal not only its destination but the time of each of its movements.

Most of the early deployments have found some issues with shielding, the tags are only a few microns thick and low powered these can be defeated by a layer of foil or even being contained in a hand (apparently the salt and water content of flesh is a rather good RF insulator) so the technology may have a bit more refining to go yet.

If used effectively RFID could have a massive impact on many industries with deliveries telling you what’s inside before you open the box or a supermarket trolley being wheeled through a checkout with an instant total, the issues as always surround privacy. Who is to say that the RFID tag meant to help a store track its inventory will stop being used when it leaves their premises. All the trials to date have gone to great lengths to show that the tag information is not being sought after it leaves the store but the tag is not deactivated so there is an opportunity for it to be interrogated by 3rd parties be they connected or unconnected to the retailer the standard allows for enough power so that tags can be read from a distance of 20 meters.

The giant retailer Wal-Mart has been very cagey about its use of RFID only confirming trials and trying to allay consumer fears, but to date no retailer has deployed the technology that would kill RFID tags at the store exit, unnecessary the retailers claim, big brother claim the civil liberties groups. Which ever way you see the technology there is no doubting that it could have the largest impact on commerce since the rollout of barcode scanning.