An independent news service reporting on developments regarding the use of radio based transponder systems for commerce and scientific applications. Covering the RFID technologies, EAS technologies and magnetic coupled techniques.

Future trends in transponder systems

Before looking at applications, there are some industry driving issues that will steer the future of these technologies:

Manufacturing methods
Tags consist of antennas, electronic circuitry, and energy sources. Passive tags, that is those that receive their energy from the energising field, can dispense with the need for energy sources. Electronic circuitry has already advanced to the stage where the electronic circuitry is implimented on a single circuit. The last major manufacturing hurdles are the antenna system and the packaging.
Technological design
Whereas initially RFID tags were based on magnetic coupling techniques, assisted by the then limitations in semiconductor design methods, and the desire to operate at frequencies below the minimum licensing frequency (135KHz), resulting in tags that could only be read single and over short distances, requirements for distance are resulting in new technologies coming to the fore.
Major applications are starting to appear in the 433MHz band, the 915MHz band and soon in the 2.45GHz and 5.6GHz band. The latter two bands are still technically challenging for the semiconductor industry. With increasing range, it is necessary to be able to read many transponders at the same time, as the chances of finding a volume in which only one transponder will be present is ever reducing.
Transponder price
Due to current manufacturing techniques, pricing in the different RFID technologies seems to have reached a plateau. Current developments that will see the light of day in the next few years, are likely to to drastically reduce the production price, allowing far greater commercial penetration of RFID technology. This reduction will allow EAS and identification features to be merged into a single product suitable for the retail labelling market.
Spectrum allocation
When deciding to operate above 135KHz, it is necessary to acquire an operating frequency allocation from the regulatory bodies. As RFID becomes more popular, this allocation will become a valuable asset.

Applications that are driving the developments of RFID Technologies are among others:

EAS security applications
In the next few years there will be rapid expansion of the EAS market penetration. Particularly in the Western World, shoplifting has become a major problem and has created a massive need for low cost anti-shoplifting solutions. At present there are a variety of technologies ranging from amorphous magnetic strips, to destructible tuned circuits. The primary issue is to develop very low cost techniques in view of a transponder being needed on every item.
Electronic car security
Major developments are happening particularly in Europe, where short reading range transponders (magnetic coupling) are being included in motorcar keys, allowing the onboard management computer to verify the authenticity of the key to try to reduce motor car theft. The advantage of this method is that since the management system controls the fuel injection, timing and performance of the engine, an invalid identity allows the management system to completely close down the motor vehicle engine. Communication between the sensor of the key and the engine management system is accomplished by a system of codes dependent on the value of the ID transponder so that thieves cannot simply cut appropriate wires and bypass the communication system.
Toll roads
With more local authorities funding their motorway development by taxing users, toll booths have been established on many of the countries highways. Unfortunately a motorway is there to move traffic relatively quickly between points, and slowing the traffic down at paypoints to collect funds is very disruptive. Major attention is being focussed on trying to use RFID techniques to recognise and automatically charge the drivers of the vehicles at pay booths without requiring them to slow down. Unfortunately these efforts are fragmented and few global standards are in place.
One light of hope at the end of this lack of standards tunnel, is that in April 1993, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory published a report on their proposed solution and the results from their demonstration model, of a system that they had developed for the California Depertment of Transport (CalTrans). This development was funded by the US Dept of Energy. This system allowed car mounted tranponders to be read up to 5 times during the period they travelled only 1 meter even at speeds as high as 160kph (100mph) on a five line highway. Frequency allocations are generally at 915 MHz (Caltrans/Sidney) but more recently allocations are being used at 5.8GHz (Melbourne). The later frequencies require active tags and state of the art manufacturing technologies. Up to April 1997 there were already a reported 1.8million transponder tags for toll roads in use.
On the 1 April 1998 Singapore turned on the S$197 million Electronic Road Pricing (ERP} system. With ERP in place, Singapore is the first country in the world to use ERP for traffic management. Transponders are window mounted and cost about $150 each.
Postal systems efficiency
Governements are keen to monitor automatically the efficiency of their postal systems. Companies are developing transponder systems that can be incorporated into dummy letters and pass through the postal system being monitored by readers remotely to estimate actual system efficiency.
Postage stamp replacement
Developments are taking place and patents being granted for systems where the postage stamp will contain a transponder that can be used by the postal authorities for routing, and for cancelling the stamp after use. No cost effective system yet seems to be in place.
Golf balls
A recently granted patent finally shows an effective method of finding lost golf balls on a golf course. For conventional transponders, the antenna placement and orientation with regard to the reader has always been a problem. The new system proposes fitting a radar corner reflector in the golf ball and using a search beam which can detect the reflection of the radiation beam over a short distance.
Gaming chips
Developments are happening in the gaming industry to incorporate transponders in gaming chips, thereby allowing slot machines to play with "coins" of a larger value than that of the highest coin value of the countries currency, to limit counterfeiting, and to allow machines to accurately "read" the value of the chip.
Criminal penal monitoring
Recently systems are being tried out to monitor the presence of a convicted criminal within a zone. The system would be used to impose and monitor house arrest imposed by the courts, rather than sending the criminal to prison. One system under test, involves a transponder in a band attached to the person's ankle, and an associated receiver in the house which monitors the presence continually.
Smart appliances
Recent developments and published patents detail improvements in home appliances using RFID technology. In one case a company has developed an intelligent fridge which uses transponders attached to the bottles to detail the contents of the fridge on a TV screen or PC. Such developments would have application in situations such as bar fridges in hotel rooms.
A recent patent details the concept of embedding transponders into clothing and encoding the transponders with washing, folding and ironing information. Appliances can then interrogate the garment and set up the correct washing cycle, water temperature and spin cycles for the garments. A feature is to write back to the transponder the number of washing cycles the garment has been exposed to to compensate for the age of the garment.
Remote controlled computer access
An interesting development recently from the US is the concept of adding a transponder to the clothes of the operators of a PC, which presence is sensed by a reader in the PC allowing the PC to lock up the computer system and unlock the computer system whenever the operator leaves or approaches his workstation. This system prevents others tampering with the computer and data providing RF controlled security.
Airline baggage
With the suitablility for automatic sorting and routing of luggage within the air terminals, the tagging of airline luggage using RFID transponders is an ideal application. As the luggage can be tagged when it is accepted and its details linked to a datafile in a computer system, it is then viable for the luggage to be routed to the correct aircraft luggage loading bay, and for the progress of the luggage through the transport system to be monitored for later quering if it is necessary.
A complication for RFID tagging in this application, is that the RF field used for reading the RF tags, will also penetrate the luggage and would read any tags contained in the luggage. These other tags will provide confusing signals, or even provide interferring signals that might jam the reader system for the luggage tags. To minimise these effects, tag systems that are able to read multiple tags at a time might be used together with an organised numbering system so that the luggage tags might be differentiated from any goods that are tagged.
In 1998 tests are reported to be starting to evaluate different RFID tags.
Warehousing control
Manufacturing methods
Logistic measurements
Parcel routing
Postage stamps
Battery developments

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