Research Article

Active RFID - A profitable business

Read the highlights from the IDTechEx Active RFID Summit which looked at the technologies and application of active RFID (tags with a battery) and how it is embracing other wireless technologies such as Wifi, Zigbee, Bluetooth, sensors and DSRC.

Active RFID - A profitable business
Nov 15-16, San Antonio, USA
The inaugural Active RFID Summit hosted by IDTechEx was attended by 150 delegates from 9 countries, a turnout greater than anticipated. The event looked at the technologies and application of active RFID (tags with a battery) and how it is embracing other wireless technologies such as Wifi, Zigbee, Bluetooth, sensors and DSRC. Some of the latter technologies go beyond the traditional definition of active RFID, but nevertheless we include them because they now provide similar functions. As with passive RFID the choices of Active RFID are diverse - from the range of frequencies useable, read ranges achievable, shapes and sophistication. Delegates were highly inquisitive with much discussion.
A profitable business creating new markets
A strong ROI case for Active RFID made throughout the event is that despite the high tag price compared to passive tags ($5 to $100 versus sub $0.50), if it is reused many times, the cost per use can be very low. For example, a $50 tag used 10,000 times on containers of expensive equipment has a cost per use of just 0.5 cent. Savi Technology, Axcess, IDTechEx, Siemens and others made the point well. IDTechEx note that many companies that have been selling Active RFID systems or hardware for a few years say the business is profitable. Presenters also covered how Active RFID does not necessarily replace another technology but often does something new - from car clickers (about half a billion active RFID tags have been used to date for this application for the entire auto industry) to real time location of people and things.
Major applications of Active RFID covered at the conference were the tracking of cargo, proof of tamper evidence on containers, long range asset tracking, peer to peer networks for sensing, real time location of assets and people and remote identification in difficult environments (such as high water and metal presence). Wavetrend, the lead sponsor of the event, covered their diverse range of Active RFID case studies including tagging artwork in galleries for security and fast audit to tagging beds in hospitals, whereby insurance companies could monitor the time patients were in hospital and check this with the consultants recorded fees. They found the consultants were overbilling.
Active RFID has been used by Associated Food Stores in the US to tag trailers. A better understanding of trailer movement has led to much better utilization of their equipment and resulted in a reduction of the number of $80,000 food trailers they use from 252 to 167. Wherenet 2.45GHz active tags are used, costing $50 each, with a location accuracy to about 6 inches. Gerald Darsch of the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program stated their ROI with Active RFID - it reduced inventory from $127m to $70m and wait time of 26 days to 16 days for supplies. They have bought over 1 million active tags to date, with a 300 foot read range in ideal conditions. However, so far they are only getting about 5% come back to them from the field, something they are working to improve. This is because ground staff are removing the tags for fear that it acts as a location beacon to the enemy - an issue with perhaps some validity as queried by the audience.
Benefits of battery assisted RFID
Several companies and an interactive panel discussed the virtues of battery assisted backscatter tags. These tags have their own power source to pre energise the silicon chip. The data is sent and received from the reader otherwise in the same way as a passive tag. This is a benefit where you have many tags in an interrogation zone - if they are all passive they all need a lot of energy initially to reach sufficient voltage to turn "on". With metals and fluids near tags, this is even harder due to interference and "blind spots" in the field. An on-board power source on each tag helps to overcome this. However, at IDTechEx we feel that this advantage is somewhat offset by the higher cost of the battery assisted labels and forthcoming developments in long range HF and UHF. Nevertheless it will prove invaluable for some applications. Beyond this, we see massive needs and markets for condition monitoring on low cost smart active labels. Bill Roberts, Research Fellow at Cyrovac / Sealed Air Corporation made this point very well when he discussed the needs for temperature sensing RFID tags on pallets of perishable goods.
Laminar batteries for Active RFID labels
Thin Battery Technologies, Power Paper and Solicore spoke of laminar, flexible batteries. Price is dependent heavily on volume, but expect 50cents or so for 1 million batteries an inch square. The aim is a few cents. Solicore demonstrated impressive robustness tests - folding and even driving over their battery did not change its performance.
RFID, Wifi and UWB
Pango Networks and Cisco spoke of real time location systems (RTLS) using wifi infrastructure. Conventional RTLS require new relatively expensive infrastructure to be installed - this, however, can use existing or cheaper Wifi hardware. The systems locate tags to an accuracy of less than 3m. RTLS systems can work in two ways - by received signal strength from the tag at each reader antenna or by the time of arrival of the tag signal at each antenna. For greater accuracy, where needed, Ultra Wide Band UWB systems cited by Ubisense and Parco Wireless enable location in three dimensions to an accuracy of about 5 inches. Ubisense have used this in over 80 locations worldwide for a range of applications, one being to monitor office space utilization. UWB use a range of frequencies which minimize interference thus enabling a greater level of location accuracy. ParcoWireless cited the benefits of UWB in hospitals, where interference is a safety concern with existing equipment.
Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs covered their research on RFID tags combined with a photosensor and a suitable reader which detects the tag is in an area (using RFID) and the photosensor then enables accurate location of that tag. Line of sight is required for the latter.
Combining technologies and mesh networks
RFCode spoke of applications of their combined passive and active tag, such as for tracking children in a theme park. The long range active tag keeps track of the general location of children in the park for their safety and the short range passive function provides greater interactivity with the park exhibits, by remembering what they have done previously, virtual queuing etc. Alien Technology, Cirronet and Tagsense spoke of enhanced sensor based tags, some even creating mesh (adhoc) networks - provided there are enough tags, the information from one can be sent back to an interrogator using other tags as repeater nodes. Applications cited include factory, warehouse and retail automation, smart homes and condition monitoring supply chains.
Near Field Communication NFC
Another system where a device is both a tag and a reader is the NFC system, developed by Sony, Philips, Texas Instruments, Innovision and many others. Embedded into cellphones and compatible with smart card standards at 13.56MHz, NFC enables a user to make payments with their phone, access transport systems, transfer data between two NFC devices and enable fast setup of devices, such as by "touching" a NFC device to two NFC compatible appliances to initiate a Wifi or Bluetooth connection between those appliances, without the user having to make manual settings. Crucially, the telecoms companies are backing the scheme, which has been taking off more quickly in Asia than elsewhere, but recently a town in France announced their trial of a NFC system for their citizens, where handsets can be used to purchase items from posters (which have an embedded NFC compatible tag) among other applications. We see new consumer propositions coming with NFC, such as easier impulse buys and more readily available information. The choke point is the infrastructure - you can buy a phone with NFC built in today from Nokia and other vendors, but you wouldn't be able to use it for anything yet other than a few very niche non mainstream applications. Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and a few others have been using contactless smart cards for over a decade for transport and payments, and it is therefore happening there first where the NFC enabled phone replaces that card.
Active RFID Outlook
IDTechEx forecast the Active RFID market in 2006 to be $409 million, with strong growth in subsequent years in smart active labels and real time location systems creating a multi billion dollar market by 2015.
For more information, download the presentations and hear the audio - purchase the online conference proceedings from External Link. The Active RFID Summit will next be held in November 2006. To be involved, contact Dan Lawrence
In the meantime, attend the Active RFID technology and application sessions at the fifth annual RFID Smart Labels USA 2006 event on March 28-29, Boston. Register in December 2005 and save 30% and receive access to 1,600 RFID case studies. External Link.