RFID Tags- Radio Frequency Identification Tags

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The purpose of this report is to explore the history and examine the practical applications of RFID. This will be explained through the following sections:

  1. Introduction to RFID
  2. History of RFID - a look at the invention and innovation of RFID
  3. Types of RFID Tags - the schematics and differences between active and passive RFID tags
  4. RFID Systems - the technology and equipment required for an RFID system to exist
  5. Current RFID applications - exploring the present and future applications of RFID
  6. The Electronic Product Code (EPC)
  7. RFID in Wal-Mart - examining the case studies and data provided by Wal-Mart on their RFID usage
  8. RFID regulation - specifications and prohibitions
  9. RFID Security Concerns - the illicit tracking of RFID tags
  10. RFID Privacy and Controversy - conspiracy theories regarding privacy invasion
  11. RFID Today - a summary


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has existed in some form or another for over 40 years. It is a method of automatically identifying a given object/person by storing and remotely retrieving information from small transponders, called RFID tags. These tags have an antenna built into them, which allows for the transmission and reception of radio waves from an RFID transceiver. There are two types of RFID tags; active and passive. Passive tags require no power source, whereas active tags need a power source to function. Here is a RFID training Video which will help explain radio frequency identification technology.

History of RFID

The history of RFID can be directly related to a similar technology employed by the Allies in World War 2 called IFF (Identification Friend or Foe). The function of this technology was to identify whether an incoming plane was a friend or foe by using coded radar signals. These signals would trigger the aircrafts transponder, and a correct reply indicated a friendly military or civilian aircraft. After the war, scientists and researchers began to explore the use of RFID to store and relay information.

Radio Frequency Identification presented one major obstacle before it could become a feasible technology; finding a suitable power source. It took roughly thirty years for technology and research to produce internal power sources for RFID tags and chips.

Types Of RFID Tags

As mentioned above, there are two types of RFID tags: active and passive.

Passive RFID tags have no internal power supply. Instead, a small electric current is created in the antenna when an incoming signal reaches it. This current provides enough power to briefly activate the tag, usually just long enough to relay simple information, such as an ID number or product name. Because passive RFID tags do not contain a power supply, they can be very small in size, sometimes thinner than a piece of paper. These tags can be activated from a distance of ten millimeters to over 6 meters away.

Active RFID tags do contain an internal power source, which allows for a longer read-range and for a bigger memory on the tag itself. The power source also makes it possible to store information sent by the transceiver. Active RFID tags are larger than passive tags, usually slightly bigger than a coin. They can be read from many meters away, and generally have a battery life of about ten years. Advantages of active tags include accuracy, reliability, and superior performance in adverse environments, such as damp or metallic.

Being cheaper to manufacture, most RFID tags are of the passive variety. Analysts predict that ever-lowering costs and growing demand will eventually lead to the widespread usage of RFID technology on a global scale.

The four most common tags in use are categorized by radio frequency: low frequency tags (125 or 134.2 kHz), high frequency tags (13.56 MHz), UHF tags (868 to 956 MHz), and microwave tags (2.45 GHz).

RFID Systems

RFID systems consist of numerous specialized components, such as tags, rfid readers, edge servers, middle ware, and software. An RFID system allows for data to be transmitted from the tag to the reader, which in turn processes it for a particular use. The data sent can include identification, location information, price, color, and date of purchase. Radio Frequency Identification systems can also be employed for tracking purposes, which some point out as an invasion of privacy.

An RFID system works in stages. Items are equipped with a tag, which has a transponder that is assigned a unique electronic product code. The accompanying antenna has a transceiver and a decoder, which emits a signal and activates the tag. Once activated, data can be read and written to the tag. If a reader is in range, it decodes the data being transmitted by the tagís computer and relays it to a host computer for processing.

Current RFID Applications

Current RFID use has spread to many, many varied fields:

  • Medical: tags are placed on prescription pill bottles for the visually impaired. A special reader provides audible information on the name, instructions and warnings of the prescription.
  • Animal Identification: low frequency tags are implanted in animals, wild or domestic, which can be read to provide information such as gender, name, diseases etc. As well, these tags allow lost pets to be returned to their owners.
  • Tracking: High frequency RFID tags are used to track library books, baggage, ID tags, warehouse inventory and even credit cards. American Express has a new service called Express Pay, featured on the American Express Blue credit card, which utilizes RFID technology.
  • Geology/Vulcanology - RFID transceivers relay seismic information to specialized readers, greatly simplifying the collection of data.
  • Automotive: Michelin has spearheaded a program to embed RFID tags in their tires. This will help track down problems should a recall have to be utilized. As well, some Toyota and Lexus models feature a Smart Key option, which uses an active RFID tag to allow the driver to unlock doors and roll down windows without having to take the key out of their pocket.
  • Human: As frightening as it may seem, RFID technology is already tracking human beings. Inmates at select prisons around the United States are issued special wristbands with RFID tags embedded within. These tags constantly relay the location of the prisoner to a computer, as well as raise an alarm should the band be tampered with. In more extreme cases, RFID chips have been implanted into arms, legs etc. of various individuals. For example, the Mexico police department has had over 170 members of its force implanted with the Verichip. This allows them to access databases and, in rare instances, track an officer in case of a kidnapping.
  • Border Security - RFID Chips implemented for the USA Canada Nexus program

Research and technological advances will lead to prolific achievements in RFID devices. The ultimate goal is to eventually replace all UPC and barcodes with RFID tags, but that is highly unlikely in the near future due to expenditure needed. Another goal is to utilize the uniqueness of each individual RFID code for combating theft of merchandise by tracking it as it moves form location to location. Research is also being undertaken to create an ink with RFID properties.

Representatives from EPCGlobal, which includes major companies around the world such as Wal Mart and The Gillette Company, are working on an international standard of use for RFID. The objective is to eventually use the EPC (Electronic Product Code) and RFID to identify any item, in any industry, anywhere in the world.

Experts in the medical community have suggested numerous potential uses for RFID tags. Special tags could keep track of patient records and allow relevant medical staff to access them with the wave of a reader. Chips could even be embedded into patients containing medical information, greatly easing the strain of home care workers and potentially saving lives.

There are plenty of home uses as well. ďTalkingĒ fridges may one day inform the owner of expiry dates, and implanted RFID tags will allow a house to recognize which individual is in which room, thereby adjusting the lighting and heat of that room to the individualís preferences.

The Electronic Product Code (EPC)

The Electronic Product Code is the next evolution of product identification, utilizing RFID technology to identify objects in a supply chain.

Based on current numbering schemes (EAN, VIN etc.), EPC is divided into numbers that differentiate the product and manufacturer of a given item. The difference between EPC and previous numbering systems lies in the usage of an extra set of digits to uniquely identify one object. According to the EPCGlobal company website, An EPC number contains:

  • A Header, identifying the length, type, structure, version and generation of EPC
  • The Manager Number, which identifies the company or company entity
  • Object Class, similar to a stock keeping unit or SKU
  • Serial Number, which is the specific instance of the Object Class being tagged

The Electronic Product Code promises to become the standard for global RFID usage.

RFID in Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is one of the strongest advocates for widespread use of RFID tags; they have announced sweeping changes in most of their stores which will eventually equip all company inventory with RFID tags. With this initiative, Wal-Mart will save uncountable dollars in labor and product cost due to find ability and increased market awareness. As such, numerous case studies exist showing the success of Wal-Martís RFID experiment.

A study undertaken by the University of Arkansas showed that Wal-Mart stores with RFID tags in use could boast a greater success rate of customer satisfaction with the availability of desirable products. It also served to show that those Wal-Mart stores with RFID technology could replenish out-of-stock items three times faster than those using a bar code system.

A major part of the Wal-Mart RFID edict states that by a pre-determined date (initially January 1st, 2005, but Wal-Mart has recently stated that said date will not be possible), all Wal-Mart suppliers will have to employ RFID tags to identify their shipments. There is speculation that this is largely responsible for the sudden boom in RFID production, profit and technological advances.

Not everyone is happy with Wal-Martís RFID plan, though. The purchase of Gillette by consumer giant Proctor and Gamble has been seen as a direct challenge to Wal-Martís edict requiring that their suppliers use RFID.

RFID Regulation

There is no global body that has set RFID regulation in stone; every country has its own rules. Low frequency and High frequency RFID tags can be used globally without a license, but UHF may not be used globally due to the lack of accepted standards. For example: in North America, limitations exist on UHF usage, specifically targeting transmission power. These limitations are not accepted by France because UHF interferes with military bands.

As well, there are regulations for health and environmental issues. In Europe, it is illegal to dispose of boxes with RFID tags because of the possibility of damaging sensitive recycling machinery. Potential health risks are associated with the Electromagnetic Field surrounding RFID tags; every country has specific regulations regarding this concern.

The following is a list of many standards that apply to RFID technology:

ISO 11784 & 11785 - These standards regulate the Radio frequency identification of animals in regards to Code Structure and Technical concept

ISO 14223/1- Radio frequency identification of Animals, advanced transponders - Air interface

ISO 10536 - Close coupled cards

ISO 14443 - Proximity cards

ISO 15693 - Vicinity cards

ISO 18000 - RFID for item Management; Air Interface


RFID Security Concerns

One of the major RFID security concerns is the threat of illegal tracking. RFID tags could be read from a distance without the ownerís knowledge, leading to the disclosing of location or other sensitive information contained in the RFID tagís memory. Another security concern is the cloning of RFID tags. This poses a problem for companies employing RFID technology for entry into their building, or for compromising payment methods, such as the Esso Speed pass.

Unfortunately, the technology does not currently exist to practically encrypt commercial RFID tags, though proposed low-encryption solutions include backward channeling and third-party agents. An industry standard label has also been suggested as a way to alleviate RFID security concerns.

RFID Privacy and Controversies

Obviously, RFID privacy and the controversies surrounding the technology need to be resolved if RFID tags are ever going to be implemented on a global scale. The single greatest fear is one born of privacy invasion; the tags can be activated without the knowledge of the consumer. This would lead to targeted marketing and illicit tracking through tags the consumer may not even be aware of. In cases where RFID is used in credit or store cards, it could be possible to determine the identity of that particular consumer.

Another privacy controversy is that many RFID tags remain functional post-purchase, possibly allowing for surveillance and household inventories. As well, distance would not hinder the ability to read the tags; anyone with access to a high-gain antenna would be able to activate these RFID tags from a distance.

RFID technology may soon show up in passports and driverís licenses, creating further controversies. Many countries want to utilize RFID to facilitate readability of passports and to expatiate customs procedures, which could lead to a compromise of an individualís identity. The same technology has been proposed for use in driverís licenses, with the purpose of hastening police checks, but would carry the same privacy issues as passport implantation.

RFID Today

The practical applications of RFID today are astounding. Any inventory could be instantly located in any warehouse, high risk security institutions are able to keep a constant eye on dangerous offenders, lost pets can be returned to their owners...the list goes on.

When a secure form of RFID is created for the consumer population and privacy issues are resolved, RFID tags will change the world. Organizations such as EPCGlobal are spearheading initiatives to standardize regulations and usage, and numerous reputable companies are spending billions of dollars and thousands of man-hours to perfect the technology.

RFID technology is continuously advancing, and the very near future will see science fiction become reality as Radio Frequency Identification makes its way into everyday functions.

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