Tuesday, May 21, 2002

beyond bar codes

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags have the potential to make many jobs considerably easier. You're used to the technology if you have an EZ Pass in your car. But the applications they can be used for go far beyond making driving though toll booths less painful. In many ways, they are the next step beyond barcodes. The chips contain an identification number. They don't emit radio waves themselves, but radio waves bounced off them can go to a receiver which will match them up with other information in a database. Hundreds of tags can be read at the same time if they are within the field of a reading device.

How will they be used? Here are some potential and some present day applications:
  • The Pentagon uses the tags in their filing system. Each file has a tag. When a file moves around, its location is noted in a database. If a number of files are in a box, the whole box can be inventoried without being opened. When a file is misfiled on a shelf, it's location can be pinpointed, and it can be moved to the proper spot.
  • Railroad cars, and their contents can have tags. When a train passes a location with a transmitter/receiver, the contents of the railroad car can be inventoried immediately.
  • Garbage trucks have been fitted with RFID tags. When a truck arrives at a landfill, the driver doesn't have to stop to fill out paperwork, but rather just drives up on a scale, and the weight of the truck's contents are recorded for later billing.
  • Items in a supermarket or store can be tagged. During checkout, all of the items or groceries can be counted at once, and only certain goods, such as produce will need to be manually handled by the cashier. An inventory of goods within the store can be conducted with portable wands, and matched up against the inventory of items purchased, to identify theft and loss, and to help make reordering easier.
  • You can wave a tagged item or card in front of a gasoline pump and it recognizes you, and matches your purchase with a credit card.
  • Employee badges can have tags in them, and can be used for security purposes.
There is a potential cost to this convenience. That cost might be privacy. The Insurance Commissioner of Delaware suggested within the past year or two that motor vehicle registrations contain a RFID tag. This would allow police officers to scan for invalid registrations from the side of the road. While that wasn't adopted, it is a possibility. Another use might be to put that technology into driver's licenses, and state identification cards.

The cost of the tags is hindering their widespread use. Presently, they cost somewhere between fifty-cents to a dollar. There are predictions that the cost will drop to less than a nickle per tag within the next few years. Once they do, they may become more common than barcodes.