Wednesday, 2 November 2011

What is RFID? - 10 Examples of RFID Applications

Radio Frequency Identification Device (RFID) is the name given to the wireless, radio wave technology that allows for a small RFID chip to be embedded in any physical object and uniquely identified by an RFID reader.  With an unlimited amount of possibilities for connected devices we are now seeing consumer packaged goods, animals, waste management systems and even humans tagged with RFID chips.  Thus generating a wealth of valuable data which can be applied to a variety of systems to enhance our future lives.  

First patented in 1983, RFID has seen a mass market, consumer facing surge throughout 2011 with the release of several high profile, RFID enabled mobile devices, most notably from Google and Nokia.  With the cost of production falling and RFID technology now available to the public, 2012 should be fuelled with exciting projects emerging from the maker, hacking and tinkering revolutions.  To whet the appetite and demonstrate how much this technology can achieve, here are 10 examples of how RFID is currently being championed and how it will impact on our future.  

1. Travel

From Hong Kong's Octopus, to London's Oyster and Liverpool's Walrus, travel cards have for a long time been the most widely adopted use of RFID technology.  The most interesting use of this however, is in the data which sits behind these operations and the challenge lies in surfacing the valuable stuff to the top.  

Thanks to the open data supplied from Transport for London, Chromaroma built their sophisticated data visualisation service on top of the TFL API and in the process introduced gamification to the commuting masses of London.  

2. Agriculture

Tracking the movements of animals via RFID is probably one of the first areas where this technology was used.  Farm management systems can be extremely expensive, but monitoring the health of animals is essential for any modern day farmer.  Ensuring the correct feed is provided to a specific individual among a herd of hundreds can be extremely time consuming.  With RFID this can be achieved automatically and cost effectively, with information sent back to central database in real time to show which animals are healthy.  

3. Retail

With mobile RFID devices already on the market, the infrastructure is also beginning to grow for RFID payments as several retailers from McDonalds to Starbucks in the UK have already signed up.  The video below from IBM has been around for a while but examines how this concept can be taken further.  

From a consumer perspective RFID is a fairly simple approach, however for a retailer this technology has massive implications on the supply chain.  The cost benefit analysis of implementing tags on all products to have real time asset management, warehouse management and supply chain visibility is immensely valuable.  Each product can now be accurately tracked from its raw materials, straight through to the manufacturing process and finally to the individual end user.  With the rise of the intelligent fridge we could see better communication between several closed systems.  For example once a product is consumed a message could be sent back to the retailer to delivery more and also to the manufacturer to produce more, thus allowing for better stock control and reducing waste.   

4. Smart Plates & Edible RFID Tags

NutriSmart have developed edible RFID tags which really demonstrates how far the true supply chain can really be measured.  Incorporating printable RFID tags into food produce has huge benefits for the health and medical industries.  This could ensure people are taking the right medicine and those with health problems are consuming the right foods.  This type of technology could identify whether the food is safe to eat, whether it has the right nutritional value and may then go on to track it through the body's digestive system and communicate any problems to your mobile phone.  The SmartPlate could soon become a product many  of us simply cannot live without.

5.  Navigation Systems for the Visually Impaired  

As our environment becomes scattered with more and more RFID tags this technology has massive implications for assisting those with disabilities.  This clever, but simple video shows how a team strategically placed tags around their building so that when the RFID reader on the end of the stick enters the field the environment is relayed to the user through an earpiece.  This enhances the experience for the visually impaired user and empowers them rather than relying on others for assistance.  Combining this with the previous retail and SmartPlate examples we can quickly begin to see how a world with this technology can suddenly become a lot more appealing to those in need.

5.  Waste Disposal 

Since 2006 a small number of UK councils have introduced an RFID waste management system called BinBug.  BinBug monitors the amount of disposable waste from British households with an RFID embedded wheelie bin.  As the tag passes the sensor on the refuse truck it records the ID, weight and location once it is unloaded.  Controversy arose when some councils decided to introduce these without notifying the residents and the predictable uproar ensued as many believed this was the beginning of a new tax on waste.  

A project from MIT took this further and tracked individual pieces of waste that were tagged with RFID chips.  Called Trash Track the data was then transformed into the visualisations seen in the video below.   

6. Facebook RFID 

Back in 2010 the Coca Cola village was launched in Israel as part of their experiential summer activity.  With 650 teenagers all wearing RFID enabled wrist bands all of their actions were record and shared on Facebook.  From location tagging, to uploading photos and status updates, the groups managed 35,000 posts each day.

In 2004 the Baja Beach Club in Barcelona took this approach further and offered any customer the opportunity to implant the RFID chip into their arm for VIP access.  With this they were able to pay for drinks with the embedded chip by scanning their arm across a reader.  Thankfully only nine customers decided to take this up, despite reports of RFID viruses, but it does raise questions as to how this technology will be utilised in the near future.  

8. Clothes

A student from Sweden's renowned Hyper Island developed this concept for WESC clothing.  Rather than embedded the chip into your skin the more socially acceptable option is to allow brands to insert chips into specific items of clothing.  The WESC example is interesting as it provides a glimpse into how some of this technology will be used by brands to further establish their values through partnerships, experiential marketing and social networks.  

9.  Defence 

The benefits of RFID to any military operation are immense and many private companies are already specialising in the supply of RFID technology to those nations who are demanding it.  On the easily digestible CNN there have been many discussions around how RFID can make the battlefield safer for soldiers in terms of identifying friendlies, specific units, weapons and of course targeting enemies with minimum fallout.  As we've already seen in the previous examples there are multiple benefits in the having real time information to support and enhance logistics and supply chain management in the field.

However, with RFID the most effective use in a military situation, but often the least discussed in the main stream media is the ubiquitous surveillance and the tagging, tracking and locating (TTL) for monitoring targets.  Some, like the Guardian in the UK have already highlighted the use of the 'death tag' which has seen a sharp rise in the use of drones across Pakistan.

10. Smart Dust 

This requires some blue-sky thinking, but as RFID tags become smaller and smaller they will eventually reach the size of a nanoparticle and will subsequently become airborne, thus covering vast amounts of land and objects, including people.  With this in mind these connected devices will sense every part of the environment around us and transmit their data in real time to form part of an intelligent system or Smart Grid, that can support and co-ordinate numerous tasks, to ensure they flow efficiently and enhance every day life.