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Track this! Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is everywhere

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If you have ever purchased a DVD, you may have noticed a sticker with a barcode and a metallic ring of some sort attached to the DVD or packaging. That sticker is an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag, and this technology is becoming increasingly cheap, versatile, robust and ubiquitous.

RFID is basically a 2-part system for tracking items (objects, people, cars, you name it), consisting of a “tag” and a “reader.” The tracked item is tagged with a small passive electronic chip and an antenna that can be powered and read by passing though a magnetic field. The reader, usually a gate or a mat, generates a field that can pick up tags within about 3 meters and collect information stored in the tag (e.g. serial number, lot, etc.). This technology gained initial market traction for inventory control and theft prevention but as the technology has become smaller, cheaper, more reliable and more easily packaged, it is popping up everywhere.

RFID timing tag from ChronoTrack

The next-generation RFID timing tag from ChronoTrack

Take marathon race timing: A company called ChronoTrack Systems has taken RFID technology developed by Impinj Inc. and developed a disposable race day timing device, which I used during the recent Inaugural Oakland Marathon. That timing tag was a thin flexible strip that attached in a loop to the laces of my shoe. The next-generation timing tag from ChronoTrack (available this quarter) is integrated right into the race bib and requires no assembly at all. These new tags weigh essentially nothing and sell for roughly $1.25 in volume. Bob Finnegan of ChronoTrack explained that since the days of inventory control usage, the read rate of the chips has improved to nearly 100%. (As he put it, ”If a person has run 26 miles, we’d better capture their time!”) Best of all, the chips don’t need to be collected at the end of the race like RFID chips of old, saving runners time and race organizers money and manpower.

In addition to improved performance and cost, the chips can also be customized to withstand harsh environments. RFID is now used to track critical equipment in war zones (Iraq, Afghanistan) and disaster sites (Haiti) where weather and conditions are extreme. The Impinj website describes a tagging system for tracking hotel towels and linens that has been tested at up to 200°C (392° F) in washers, dryers and ironing systems. The tag can last for more than 200 washing cycles—pretty tough little tags!—and they look just like regular fabric labels.

Hotel linen labels can include built-in RFID tags

Hotel linen labels can include built-in RFID tags

Impinj, the RFID technology company behind ChronoTrack, still makes RF tags for inventory tracking but they and other RFID manufacturers are also integrating the tags seamlessly into products people use everyday. RFID is used in electronic toll systems (e.g. Fastrak, EZPass), injectable subcutaneous pet ID tags and implanted glucose measurement chips in diabetic patients. It may not be long before we integrate this all together and just chip ourselves, go run a marathon, have the race fees automatically deducted from our prepaid bank account, get our race times recorded to our home page and have our blood chemistry analyzed post-race to send us an email with instructions for the perfect post-race recovery meal. Hmmm, I see a booming business here!

About the Author

Kathy Davies

Kathy teaches at Stanford University, where her students use Design Thinking to design cutting edge products and to reshape their lives, at Stanford and beyond. Kathy has worked with Arena ...

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