Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) refers to a wireless system comprised of two components: tags and readers. The reader is a device that has one or more antennas that emit radio waves and receive signals back from the RFID tag. Tags, which use radio waves to communicate their identity and other information to nearby readers, can be passive or active. Passive RFID tags are powered by the reader and do not have a battery. Active RFID tags are powered by batteries. RFID tags can store a range of information from one serial number to several pages of data. Readers can be mobile so that they can be carried by hand, or they can be mounted on a post or overhead. Reader systems can also be built into the architecture of a cabinet, room, or building.
RFID - How it Works and it's Applications
RFID belongs to a group of technologies referred to as Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC). AIDC methods automatically identify objects, collect data about them, and enter those data directly into computer systems with little or no human intervention. RFID methods utilize radio waves to accomplish this. At a simple level, RFID systems consist of three components: an RFID tag or smart label, an RFID reader, and an antenna. RFID tags contain an integrated circuit and an antenna, which are used to transmit data to the RFID reader (also called an interrogator). The reader then converts the radio waves to a more usable form of data. Information collected from the tags is then transferred through a communications interface to a host computer system, where the data can be stored in a database and analyzed at a later time. RFID is employed in many industries to perform such tasks as:
- Inventory management
- Asset tracking
- Personnel tracking
- Controlling access to restricted areas
- ID Badging
- Supply chain management
- Counterfeit prevention (e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry)
Design of RFID
A radio-frequency identification system uses tags, or labels attached to the objects to be identified. Two-way radio transmitter-receivers called interrogators or readers send a signal to the tag and read its response.
RFID tags are made out of three pieces: a micro chip (an integrated circuit which stores and processes information and modulates and demodulates radio-frequency (RF) signals), an antenna for receiving and transmitting the signal and a substrate. The tag information is stored in a non-volatile memory. The RFID tag includes either fixed or programmable logic for processing the transmission and sensor data, respectively.
RFID tags can be either passive, active or battery-assisted passive. An active tag has an on-board battery and periodically transmits its ID signal. A battery-assisted passive has a small battery on board and is activated when in the presence of an RFID reader. A passive tag is cheaper and smaller because it has no battery; instead, the tag uses the radio energy transmitted by the reader. However, to operate a passive tag, it must be illuminated with a power level roughly a thousand times stronger than an active tag for signal transmission. That makes a difference in interference and in exposure to radiation.
Tags may either be read-only, having a factory-assigned serial number that is used as a key into a database, or may be read/write, where object-specific data can be written into the tag by the system user. Field programmable tags may be write-once, read-multiple; "blank" tags may be written with an electronic product code by the user.
The RFID tag receives the message and then responds with its identification and other information. This may be only a unique tag serial number, or may be product-related information such as a stock number, lot or batch number, production date, or other specific information. Since tags have individual serial numbers, the RFID system design can discriminate among several tags that might be within the range of the RFID reader and read them simultaneously.
RFID systems can be classified by the type of tag and reader.
A Passive Reader Active Tag (PRAT) system has a passive reader which only receives radio signals from active tags (battery operated, transmit only). The reception range of a PRAT system reader can be adjusted from 1–2,000 feet (0–600 m), allowing flexibility in applications such as asset protection and supervision.
An Active Reader Passive Tag (ARPT) system has an active reader, which transmits interrogator signals and also receives authentication replies from passive tags.
An Active Reader Active Tag (ARAT) system uses active tags awoken with an interrogator signal from the active reader. A variation of this system could also use a Battery-Assisted Passive (BAP) tag which acts like a passive tag but has a small battery to power the tag's return reporting signal.
Fixed readers are set up to create a specific interrogation zone which can be tightly controlled. This allows a highly defined reading area for when tags go in and out of the interrogation zone. Mobile readers may be handheld or mounted on carts or vehicles.
Signaling between the reader and the tag is done in several different incompatible ways, depending on the frequency band used by the tag. Tags operating on LF and HF bands are, in terms of radio wavelength, very close to the reader antenna because they are only a small percentage of a wavelength away. In this near field region, the tag is closely coupled electrically with the transmitter in the reader. The tag can modulate the field produced by the reader by changing the electrical loading the tag represents. By switching between lower and higher relative loads, the tag produces a change that the reader can detect. At UHF and higher frequencies, the tag is more than one radio wavelength away from the reader, requiring a different approach. The tag can backscatter a signal. Active tags may contain functionally separated transmitters and receivers, and the tag need not respond on a frequency related to the reader's interrogation signal.
An Electronic Product Code (EPC) is one common type of data stored in a tag. When written into the tag by an RFID printer, the tag contains a 96-bit string of data. The first eight bits are a header which identifies the version of the protocol. The next 28 bits identify the organization that manages the data for this tag; the organization number is assigned by the EPCGlobal consortium. The next 24 bits are an object class, identifying the kind of product; the last 36 bits are a unique serial number for a particular tag. These last two fields are set by the organization that issued the tag. Rather like a URL, the total electronic product code number can be used as a key into a global database to uniquely identify a particular product.
Often more than one tag will respond to a tag reader, for example, many individual products with tags may be shipped in a common box or on a common pallet. Collision detection is important to allow reading of data. Two different types of protocols are used to "singulate" a particular tag, allowing its data to be read in the midst of many similar tags. In a slotted Aloha system, the reader broadcasts an initialization command and a parameter that the tags individually use to pseudo-randomly delay their responses. When using an "adaptive binary tree" protocol, the reader sends an initialization symbol and then transmits one bit of ID data at a time; only tags with matching bits respond, and eventually only one tag matches the complete ID string.
- Bulk reading
"Bulk reading" is a strategy for interrogating multiple tags at the same time, but lacks sufficient precision for inventory control. A group of objects, all of them RFID tagged, are read completely from one single reader position at one time. Bulk reading is a possible use of HF (ISO 18000-3), UHF (ISO 18000-6) and SHF (ISO 18000-4) RFID tags. However, as tags respond strictly sequentially, the time needed for bulk reading grows linearly with the number of labels to be read. This means it takes at least twice as long to read twice as many labels. Due to collision effects, the time required is greater.
A group of tags has to be illuminated by the interrogating signal just like a single tag. This is not a challenge concerning energy, but with respect to visibility; if any of the tags are shielded by other tags, they might not be sufficiently illuminated to return a sufficient response. The response conditions for inductively coupled HF RFID tags and coil antennas in magnetic fields appear better than for UHF or SHF dipole fields, but then distance limits apply and may prevent success.
Under operational conditions, bulk reading is not reliable. Bulk reading can be a rough guide for logistics decisions, but due to a high proportion of reading failures, it is not (yet) suitable for inventory management. However, when a single RFID tag might be seen as not guaranteeing a proper read, a bunch of RFID tags, where at least one will respond, may be a safer approach for detecting a known grouping of objects. In this respect, bulk reading is a fuzzy method for process support. From the perspective of cost and effect, bulk reading is not reported as an economical approach to secure process control in logistics.
RFID tags are easy to conceal or incorporate in other items. For example, in 2009 researchers at Bristol University successfully glued RFID micro-transponders to live ants in order to study their behavior. This trend towards increasingly miniaturized RFIDs is likely to continue as technology advances.
Hitachi holds the record for the smallest RFID chip, at 0.05 mm × 0.05 mm. This is 1/64th the size of the previous record holder, the mu-chip. Manufacture is enabled by using the silicon-on-insulator (SOI) process. These dust-sized chips can store 38-digit numbers using 128-bit Read Only Memory (ROM). A major challenge is the attachment of antennas, thus limiting read range to only millimeters.