Wireless identification and tracking: The proliferation of radio-frequency devices

HSV Public Lecture by Alan Butters, Standards Australia, at Balwyn Library on 24 March 2016

Alan explained that given the time available his talk could only be an introduction to this huge topic.

What is Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)?

Wikipedia describes RFID as an automatic identi-fication method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data using devices called RFID tags or trans-ponders. An RFID tag is a small object that can be attached, or incorporated into, a product, animal or person. RFID tags contain silicon chips and antennas to enable them to receive and respond to radio-frequency queries from a transceiver.

Automatic identification devices, such as barcodes, have been in use for several decades and are now commonplace. RFIDs are a newer, and more sophis-ticated, identification system. Just as a barcode contains information that can be deciphered by a barcode reader, the RFID system has a tag containing information in a silicon chip, with a tiny antenna attached that can transmit information to a reader.

The tags are usually minute and come in many different shapes and sizes. Unlike a barcode, they can be read from a distance of several metres, and do not need to be directly in view. There are other advantages over a barcode as well. Multiple tags can be read quickly, 200 per second, and if the information needs to be amended the reader can then re-write the program. For example, in a retail clothing store an inventory of stock becomes a relatively simple task, with the shop assistant pointing the reader towards a stack of garments to identify which sizes are present and those which need replacing.

Some applications

  • Many pets have embedded microchips which contain details about their owners – information about immunisation and other treatment could be added potentially.
  • Livestock often have RFIDs embedded; for example, dairy cows are given an RFID tag to swallow, enabling data collection during milking.
  • Ankle bracelets are used for home detention of offenders.
  • E-passports have been in use in Australia for the last 13 years – buried within a page of a passport is a tag containing information about the physical details of the passport-holder.
  • Libraries find RFID tracking invaluable when doing an inventory – the librarian is able to scan along the shelves with a reader without having to handle any of the books physically.
  • Warehouses are able to embed RFID tags into shipping labels and track stock. This reduces human error and cost, by preventing goods, once packed, from being dispatched inadvertently to the wrong location.
  • The US Army has the capacity to take an inventory of equipment and foodstuffs etc. on the ground from a helicopter flying overhead.
  • E-tags for vehicles on freeways. These can be read at speed at a distance of many metres.
  • Access to many offices and other buildings these days is via a card with a microchip and an RFID reader.
  • Myki cards are a form of RFID that require relatively close contact, less than a centimetre.

Implications for the future

In 2015 it was estimated that about 3.2 billion people were using the internet. However there is also an internet of things (IoT). At present there are about 5 billion things, such as ATMs, connected to the internet, and this is predicted to increase to about 60 billion in 20 years’ time.

  • Wearable technology is one of the fastest growing areas of the internet of things, e.g. smart watches.
  • Smart electricity meters for buildings that generate solar power.
  • Modern cars are connected to the internet in many ways, such as GPS, WiFi and live streaming of music. Some luxury cars also constantly transmit data back to their manu-facturer, providing an alert for mechanical trouble and information about remediation. Similarly, the engines on jet planes, such as 747s, are also constantly streaming information back to the manufacturer.
  • Healthcare will be radically altered by internet capability in the future. Already consultations can be carried out by teleconference, as well as some diagnostic testing.
  • Many houses in the future will be connected to the internet, thus allowing security surveillance, control of heating and lighting from a remote location. Refrigerators will be equipped to register what has been added or removed with an alert when an item needs replacing!
  • The 600,000 carriages of the Chinese rail network each report to an internet system, at all times.
  • Massive sensor networks are currently used to monitor the quality of the water on the Great Barrier Reef, and in other parts of the world to monitor forest fires or land slippage, and the use of these is set to grow.

So, in summary, we are already using many RFIDs, and the scale of this is set to expand, if not explode, in the near future. Concern has been raised about incursions into personal privacy resulting from these advances. Europe is spearheading regulation in this area. The European Commission Mandate, M436, has recently come into effect, necessitating that when an RFID is used in a public space there must be a notice displayed, with the RFID logo, informing the public that this is the case. As well, anyone who is interested, or concerned, must have ready access to an explanation or declaration about why an RFID is being used. Australia does not have any regulations of a similar kind at present, but should follow suit.

Recommended reading:

McEwen, Adrian and Hakim Cassimally, Designing the Internet of Things, John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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