Listen to the Computerworld TechCast: RFID.Australian sheep and haute couture from Prada might not seem to have much in common, but they do. Each is a valuable asset tracked by radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.
In the case of the sheep, a small plastic "smart tag" affixed to the animal's ear contains pertinent information about its bloodlines, date of birth and shot records.
The RFID tag in the sheep's ear contains a silicon chip to store data and a miniature antenna. The Prada tag and antenna, developed by Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc., can be printed or etched on an electronic substrate, which is then embedded in a plastic or laminated paper garment tag.
Data from these tags is captured by a reader unit, which consists of an antenna and radio transmitter, attached to a stationary or handheld device. The reader emits radio waves, and when a tag comes within the range of the reader, the tag wakes up and starts sending data. The reader captures this bit stream, decodes it and sends it back over a network to a host processor.
RFID operates in a number of unlicensed frequency bands worldwide, with 125 KHz and 13.56 MHz the most common. The 13.56-MHz tags hold as much as 2,000 bits of data, or roughly 30 times the information of 125-KHz tags.
These systems have a relatively short rangeinches to a few feetbut that's enough for inventory control or payment applications, such as Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp.'s SpeedPass, which is already used by 6 million motorists. A gas-pump-based reader interrogates the key-fob SpeedPass (which contains a chip and an antenna) waved inches from the pump, obtains its identifier, passes that on via a Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) network to a back-end system for credit approval and then turns on the pumpall in seconds.
Although the majority of RFID tags are write-once/read-only, others offer read/write capability and could, for example, allow origin and destination data embedded in a shipping container's tag to be rewritten if the container is rerouted. The data store on a 13.56-MHz tag is large enough to contain routing information for the shipping container and a detailed inventory of the products inside.
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As emerging technologies evolve they often find an initial niche in highly specialized scenarios, or in specific industry verticals, before expanding to wider areas of applicability. Within these initial niches, the early adopters can be anything from digital enthusiasts to fashionistas, or they can be folks simply using the technology because it serves a specific need extremely well. (free registration required) more