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How green is RFID?

How green is RFID?

In these days of environmental consciousness, what are RFID's green credentials? Is RFID a net positive or negative contributor to the campaign to help the planet?

In these days of environmental consciousness, what are RFID's green credentials? Is RFID a net positive or negative contributor to the campaign to help the planet?
 
For the recent ID09 conference in Leeds, England, IDTechEx was asked to present on the subject of how RFID can contribute (or otherwise) to building a greener world and reducing environmental damage. Here are the highlights from that talk, using case studies from IDTechEx's Knowledgebase of over 3700 examples of RFID in action.
Reducing Carbon Emissions
Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris
Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris has installed an RFID-based queuing system for taxis. Taxis which have permission to pick up at the airport are equipped with semi passive RFID badges inside their overhead taxi signs. They arrive in a special zone away from the airport and, importantly, turn off their engines. As flights arrive and they are required for passengers, they are called to the terminal. The airport is able to predict customer demand and facilitate timely despatch of taxis via handheld devices used by taxi management agents at the feeder park and terminal ranks. The scheme has reduced air pollution at the airport and has had the added benefit of eliminating pirate taxis without official licences. The scheme was installed in 2004 by European IT services provider Steria. The RFID elements were supplied by Dutch supplier Nedap. It is considered a success and a similar scheme has now been taken up at London's Heathrow.
 
Wal-Mart
Everyone in the RFID industry is aware of Wal-Mart's drive to use RFID to improve the efficiency of its supply chain. However, Wal-Mart also sees an environmental dimension to this effort. The company predicts that in helping to track inventory more accurately, RFID will improve sustainability by reducing unnecessary truck deliveries, as well as reducing customers' trips to the store for items that were out of stock during their initial visit. "Twenty-four million people shop our stores every day. If only 100,000 extra trips are saved by having stock there," said Rollin Ford, Wal-Mart's CIO, "exhaust emissions would drop, benefiting the environment."
Monitoring Threatened Wildlife
Bonneville Power Administration, USA
Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a federal agency under the US Department of Energy. The Portland, Oregon based BPA runs the federal Columbia and Snake River hydroelectric projects. In these rivers, salmon are a vital resource for the local community, but according to reports the presence of an elaborate network of dams and contributories has depleted their numbers significantly by making it more difficult to reach their spawning grounds far up river from the ocean. The salmon are also vulnerable to pollution, weather changes and over-fishing, but the precise impacts of these factors is controversial. So BPA has instigated a monitoring programme, which is a crucial element in their survival. It has awarded Digital Angel Corporation a contract to provide RFID equipment, including the installation of the world's largest RFID reader system, a 16-foot by 16-foot RFID antenna designed to electronically track indigenous salmon. Since the late 1980s Digital Angel has worked with BPA and has developed, manufactured and installed implantable passive integrated transponders in the native salmon population. Digital Angel's largest RFID antenna located at the Bonneville Corner Collector, a route developed to allow the salmon to move safely past the Lock and Dam, can electronically detect tagged fish in a fraction of a second. When tagged fish pass through the monitored areas, their transponder automatically activates and sends their unique identification number to BPA's operations centre where important information on species, journey origin and age is recorded. This information is essential to biologists and local conservationists attempting to maintain healthy ecosystems for the indigenous fish population.
 
Census of Marine Life
The Census of Marine Life is a global network of researchers in more than 80 countries engaged in a 10-year scientific initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the oceans. The world's first comprehensive Census of Marine Life - past, present, and future - will be released in 2010. The Census aims (amongst many other objectives) to produce maps where the animals have been observed or where they could live; that is, the territory or range of the species. Knowing the range matters a lot for people concerned about, for example, possible consequences of global climate change. In addition, marine hot spots, like the rain forests of the land, exist for large fish off the coasts of Brazil and Australia. The goal is to know much more about these marine hot spots, to help conserve these fish. Their abundance and thus their diversity is changing, especially for commercially important species. Between 1952 and 1976, for example, fishermen and their customers emptied many areas of the ocean of tuna.
 
The Census has evolved a strategy of 14 field projects to touch the major habitats and groups of species in the global ocean. Three of these projects look globally at animals that either traverse the seas or appear globally distributed: the top predators such as tuna and the plankton and the microbes. The projects employ a mix of technologies, including tags placed on individual animals that store or report data. Several reasons make such a report timely, indeed urgent. Crises in the sea are reported regularly. One recent study predicted the end of commercial fishery globally by 2050, if current trends persist. Better information is needed to fashion the management that will sustain fisheries, conserve diversity, reverse losses of habitat, reduce impacts of pollution, and respond to global climate change.
 
Arrays of underwater monitors will be expanded in the vicinity of British Columbia, Alaska and California. This will be an expansion of a Census project tagging thousands of endangered salmon to chart their individual travels, with profound implications for protection of threatened stocks. The system could spread worldwide to monitor traffic and tribulations of the many species that migrate along the shallow coastal highways. Some 1,800 open ocean animals of 21 species, including sharks, turtles, seals, sea lions, and seabirds carried Census tags during 2005.
 
Tags have shown that tuna travel vast distances. A tagged bluefin tuna recorded its stunning trans-Pacific migration - three crossings in 600 days, a distance of 40,000 km, greater than the Earth's circumference. The research spans species from microbes to whales, from near-shore to mid-ocean, from the world's deepest mud in the abyssal plains to the foamy and sparkling surface, from hot seafloor vents to the ice oceans at both poles. Areas of exploration include the submerged edges of continents, seamounts dotting the ocean's floor, and coral reefs.
 
Non Native Wildlife Tracking, Florida
Established ecosystems have developed their own natural balance and controls over time, and the plants and animals within those systems find this balance suitable for survival, or they have been able to adapt in order to survive within those conditions. When non-native species from other ecosystems are introduced, they can upset that balance and bring harm to the established plants and animals, and the whole ecosystem. Non-native species come from somewhere else and they are not natural to the ecosystem they have been introduced to. They may be harmless and beneficial in their natural surroundings, but they can totally devastate different environments. When alien species enter into an ecosystem, they can disrupt the natural balance, reduce biodiversity, degrade habitats, alter native genetic diversity, transmit exotic diseases to native species, and further jeopardise endangered plants and animals. When there are no established natural controls, such as predators to keep the non-native harmful species in check, there can be a population explosion of the invasive non-native species causing an ecological catastrophe.
 
Florida is using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to combat invading non-native reptiles that might displace or prey on the state's own indigenous fauna. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has mandated that six non-native animals be tagged with RFID-enabled identifying chips in order to trace them back to their owners in case they escape or are abandoned. The reptiles now requiring RFID tags are the Indian or Burmese python; the reticulated python; the African rock python; the amethystine, or scrub, python; the green anaconda; and the Nile monitor lizard. The commission has called the animals "reptiles of concern" and a potential threat if they enter the wild. Owners of such animals that are found in the wild may be subject to a fine as it is illegal to release non-native wildlife species from their owners' control. The FWC hopes the use of RFID chips will ensure pet-owner accountability and so prevent these species from disrupting the local environment.
 
"It's been a problem," said a spokeswoman for the agency. "Down in the Everglades, we're seeing more and more established populations of these animals, such as Burmese pythons, and that's led to concern," she said. If one of the six reptiles on the list escapes and is recaptured, state investigators will be equipped with scanners that can read the chip and find out the animal's origin. The owner of the animal must also prepare and maintain a written disaster plan in case of a hurricane or if the animal manages to escape.
 
Waste Disposal
Radioactive Waste, Hanford, USA
The U.S. Department of Energy's 586-square-mile Hanford Site in southeastern Washington state operates land disposal units for the disposal of non-mixed low level radioactive waste and mixed low level radioactive waste. It is particularly important that DOE sites that plan to ship waste to Hanford understand the site-specific and Washington State requirements prior to treating their waste. Failure to understand these requirements could result in treated waste that cannot be disposed at the Hanford Site.
 
Axcess International's system, FleetTag™, is being used by Bechtel Hanford to more efficiently track waste disposal at Hanford. The system is used by the Environmental Restoration (ER) Project team to accurately track low-level and hazardous waste from multiple cleanup sites, many located just yards from the Columbia River, to the Environmental Restoration Disposal Facility (ERDF) for permanent disposal.
 
The ER Project team managed and transported nearly one million tons of waste in 2005. An average of 200 truckloads, or about 4,000 tons of low-level and hazardous waste are disposed daily at ERDF. Each truckload of waste must be identified, weighed and tracked throughout the disposal process. By installing Active RFID tags on the trucks, identification is automatic and waste weight is accurately and efficiently logged into the integrated database that serves the entire project.
 
"Waste management and transportation is a core process in our work to clean up Hanford's Columbia River corridor," said Julie Atwood, Waste Operations Project Manager for Bechtel. "A critical part of this work is being able to determine what the waste is, whether it is acceptable for disposal at the ERDF and accurately track and record waste from cradle to grave. We knew we could improve our effectiveness in cleaning up the river corridor. This was an interesting project because we had to tie various technologies together, including web-based software, hand-held computers, barcode scanning, and radio-frequency identification tags."
 
Disposal of Medical Waste, Korea and Japan
Medical waste can be particularly nasty. It includes things like extracted tissues and organs, used cottons and swabs stained with human waste material, used plastics, tested culture and blood, and needles, scalpels and blades. It obviously needs to be disposed of correctly, and initiatives are in place in Korea and Japan to use RFID to do this, stiffened by new legislation to require hospitals (and other producers of medical waste such as blood banks, funeral parlours, pet clinics, jails, nursing homes and laboratories) to ensure this is done. This is not a small matter - Korea alone generates some 50,000 tons of medical waste a year.
 
In Korea the required treatment method is broken down: incineration 82%, sterilisation and pulverisation 17.6%, and re-use 0.4%. Waste is sorted into containers with appropriate seals and processed according to strictly set down procedures. To ensure correct procedures are being followed, containers are tagged and read by RFID readers at the processing facility. Reports are generated daily, down to the level of which personnel were responsible for disposal, and any discrepancies can be highlighted and acted upon.
 
Kureha operates one of the largest incineration services to medical institutions in Japan. The company increased its medical waste processing capacity in 2004 to 1,600 tonnes per month, maintaining a high market share in the Tohoku and Kanto regions. In 2004, Kureha and IBM Japan began joint development of a waste traceability system that uses IC tags to prevent the illegal dumping of medical waste. Testing is being conducted at Kureha Hospital in Fukushima prefecture. Kureha is considering introducing this system in the Tokyo metropolitan region in the medium term.
 
Domestic Waste Disposal, Various Locations
Sweden has a very active policy on waste disposal, partly driven by EU legislation and supplemented by stringent domestic initiatives. Policy goals are to stop the amount of waste increasing, decrease the use of landfill, and re-use and recycle where possible. The policies are supported by taxes on waste - for instance SEK435 (~€40) per tonne for landfill disposal. A whole industry is growing up in Sweden to support this effort, and it has started to export this expertise to other countries.
 
Botek Systems AB is the market leader in Scandinavia and Iceland for Onboard Data Collection and Information Systems used in Waste Management. The company specialises in equipment and systems for weighing household rubbish, industrial and recyclable waste, as well as bulk products such as fuel pellets. The systems consist of modules for weighing and identification, which are connected to onboard computers. The company delivers truck-mounted electronic load-weighing systems. In order to calculate rubbish collection charges, Botek identifies and weighs each rubbish bin, skip and container (these are tagged using RFID) collected by the collection vehicle as it completed its round. Botek also collects additional information such as the collection address, type of waste, date and time, in order to generate other data for invoicing and statistics.
 
Comparable schemes are operating in other countries as the drive to discourage domestic waste continues, including Cranberry, Pennsylvania and Howard County, Maryland in the USA, and Randwick City in Australia. Expect this list to grow substantially.
Monitoring Endangered Rainforests
Springbrook National Park, Queensland, Australia
Although rainforests make up just 0.3 percent of the Australian continent, more than half of the nation's plant and animal species rely upon the complex forests. Springbrook is a national park in Queensland, 78km south of Brisbane. In 1994 the UNESCO World Heritage Committee officially extended the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves Australia World Heritage Area over the Scenic Rim (including Main Range, Mt Barney, Lamington and Springbrook National Parks and Goomburra Forest Reserve) and the rainforests of northern New South Wales. The Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 fundamentally and radically changed the Australian environmental legal system, representing a major consolidation, update and expansion of previous Commonwealth environmental legislation and jurisdiction to directly regulate impacts on the environment.
 
Scientists in Australia have developed a wireless sensor network (WSN) to monitor the environment and potentially restore endangered rainforests. The group has deployed 10 wireless solar-powered sensors in Springbrook National Park, to measure temperature, humidity, light, soil moisture and wind speed, and to pass that information on to a central database located in Brisbane. Up to 200 wireless sensors are deployed, including models with video and sound recorders, to provide information on the health of the ecosystem, fauna and flora. Aila Keto, president of the Australian Rainforest Conservation Society (ARCS) and an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland's School of Agronomy and Horticulture, says the WSN could revolutionise environmental monitoring and provide a cost-effective method for protecting and restoring environmentally sensitive rainforests.
CSIRO designed the system, which utilises the organisation's third-generation Fleck nodes to form a wireless mesh network. Each node activates its sensors and samples the environment at set intervals. The nodes operate at 915 MHz and relay the information back to the base station—either directly, or by hopping the transmission along other network nodes. The data is collated at a gateway point, and forwarded via the Internet to a central database using Telstra's Next G cellular communications network.
 
Microphones enable the scientists to identify specific birds and other animals by their calls, while video cameras take digital snapshots through motion, infrared or sound triggers. This information allows the group to determine population numbers and trends, search for patterns regarding when the animals appear and determine which factors foster reproduction cycles.
 
The next stage started in January 2009 and entails the deployment of acoustic and video sensors, as well as additional nodes to gather extra information, such as light, tree diameter, sap flow, rainfall and barometric pressure. The project has the potential to run for 10 or 20 years, and to provide significant information regarding the restoration of rainforests around the world.
Reducing Energy Use
Historic Royal Palaces, London
By linking the activation or de-activation of facilities such as projectors, air-conditioners, lights, automatic doors and so forth to employee tags in the presence or absence of such tags, companies have better control over the costs of utilising such facilities as well as the security of their employees by only allowing authorised access to specific zones within the building.
 
Wavetrend has developed a smart building solution, featuring asset management and access control. This RFID technology can provide a complete 'smart' building management system for the corporate environment. By enabling the tracking, monitoring and protection of all assets, including people, a more controlled and productive environment is created in which day to day business activities are handled more effectively and efficiently.
 
City of London School for Girls
The City of London School for Girls has deployed a wireless sensor system for heating its facility more efficiently and comfortably. The system allows each room to be controlled independently so that the optimum temperature can be maintained. The goal of the system is to lessen the school's carbon footprint by reducing the habit of overheating some rooms, with wireless sensor nodes that were easier and less expensive to install than a traditional wired system.
 
Control Technologies Ltd. (CTL) developed the system which was provided by sister company ARO Performance Systems Ltd. Another of CTL's partner companies, Ambient Environment Solutions Ltd undertook installation using Jennic's JenNet system and wireless sensors, based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.
 
The school uses the city's enterprise-wide TAC Andover Continuum building management system (BMS) to control the temperature in its 120 classrooms and offices. The school also has under-floor heating mats and electric space heaters that warm the building in five heating zones. With the new JenNet system, the school increased the number of individually controllable zones from five to approximately 130, using 160 Jennic wireless sensors.
 
Each Jennic device contains a 32-bit RFID chip wired to a temperature sensor, and is powered by two AA batteries. The sensor node awakens at preset intervals to collect temperature data and transmit that information, along with its unique ID number and the condition of its batteries, to the wireless mesh routers at a distance of up to 100 feet, or through three partitions (such as walls). The sensor then goes back to sleep. Six routers are plugged directly into outlets on each floor and, in turn, transmit signals to a "co-ordinator" or "gateway node" of which there is one per floor. The sensor nodes and routers transmit their 2.4 GHz signals according to an IEEE 802.15.4 air-interface protocol. Each gateway node is connected to the BMS system on the proprietary RS485 serial field bus, connecting data to the enterprise system via the City's Ethernet wide area network (WAN). In this way, the City of London can monitor HVAC data from the many zones within the school, to see how the heating system is functioning.
 
Each floor's gateway node is also cabled to the school's power distribution boards which control the power running the floor heating pads at any zone, based on that zone's temperature sensor data. There are six routers installed on each floor making around 30 in the building altogether.
Nodes are installed in such a way as to transmit around elevator shafts, which are highly metallic and can obstruct the RF signals. The installation cost was 80% less, and installation time was 90% less than that of a wired solution.
The Other Side of the Coin
In the interest of balance, we have to mention those aspects of RFID which do not particularly help the environment, such as:
  • On paper recycling: Adhesives, computer chips, pieces of metal from antennae and conductive inks can affect the process of recycling old corrugated containers, paperboard, etc, and manufacture of new board from recycled feedstock.
  • On pallet recycling: When pallets are composted, the metallic pieces from antennae will be shredded, but cannot break down.
  • On steel recycling: Copper as well as the plastic tag casings are contaminants not only in steel-making, but also as possible air emissions from chimneys or as residuals in the product.
  • On glass recycling: Metals and ceramics are contaminants and can damage the glass kilns, and this will affect recyclers as well as glass blowers.
  • On drum re-conditioners: When drums are refurbished and reconditioned, it's doubtful whether the RFID tags will survive. There is also the possibility of electrostatic effect on residual vapours and fumes in the drums.
  • On plastic recycling: Metals can contaminate PET and HDPE; and thus affect recyclers as well as plastic manufacturers.
Conclusion
Notwithstanding the list of possible negative effects above, when you look at the work being done by RFID solutions to help the environment, IDTechEx believes the balance is strongly in favour. Yes, RFID tags can be eco-unfriendy in some limited circumstances, but technology is helping to build a greener world, by:
  • Reducing vehicle emissions
  • Monitoring the health of wildlife
  • Protecting indigenous fauna
  • Encouraging container reuse
  • Conserving energy use in buildings
  • Improving waste disposal
  • Encouraging recycling
  • Protecting the sea floor
 
Importantly, most examples also have an economic benefit, which will encourage further deployment.
IDTechEx Knowledgebase
These case studies and many more have been taken from the IDTechEx Knowledgebase, an online database of over 3,700 RFID case studies from 110 countries. To find out more about the Knowledgebase, go to www.idtechex.com/knowledgebase/en/ .
 
For more information attend the leading European RFID event on the topic - RFID Europe 2009, hosted by IDTechEx and held in Cambridge, UK on Sept 30-Oct 1. See www.IDTechEx.com/RFIDEurope External Link for details.
 

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