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Atmel Unveils Low-Power UHF Chip

The semiconductor company is introducing a UHF RFID chip with a proprietary protocol that can be used around the world.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 14, 2004Atmel, a San Jose, Calif.-based semiconductor company, has launched a new UHF RFID chip based on work done under the Palomar project in Europe. The chip uses a proprietary protocol, but Atmel says that for companies looking to achieve the benefits RFID can deliver internally or within a closed-loop supply chain, the chip offers a way to deploy UHF today.

Palomar stands for "PAssive LOng Multiple Access RFID." The project was sponsored by the European Commission as a way to develop a UHF RFID system that would enable passive tags to be read from up to 12 feet away using a reader that was restricted to just 500 milliwatts of RF output (see Extending RFID's Reach in Europe). The European Union has since agreed to change regulations to allow readers to emit 2 watts of power, but Atmel says the low-power design of the chip provides for excellent performance in both North America and Europe.

"Our chip delivers much stronger read and write performance [than other UHF chips do]," says Michael Fislage, Atmel's RFID marketing manager. "We can read tags at 10 meters [30 feet] in Europe, which is comparable to the performance most systems deliver in North America, where readers are allowed 4 watts of output."

The Tagidu chip, as it's been dubbed, was designed to operate in a frequency range of 800 MHz to 1 GHz, which means it can be used in Europe (where 868 MHz is the norm), North America (which uses 915 MHz) and Japan (which is opening up 956 MHz for UHF RFID systems). The chip has 320 bits of system memory and 1024 bits of user memory, and its anticollission algorithm enables a read up to 460 tags per second.

Atmel says the chip was designed to give end users more flexibility than other UHF tags. User can choose either of two modulation schemes: amplitude shift keying (ASK) or double sideband modulation, a modified phase shift keying (PSK) coding. Essentially, users can choose to communicate data by shifting the strength of radio waves reflected back to the reader or by shifting the phase of the waves. Atmel says this allows users to select the appropriate combination of operating range, bit rate and security. The chip uses as proprietary protocol, and is not compatible with any standard. Atmel says, however, that it is working with reader vendors to get them to upgrade the firmware in existing readers to read the tags.

The ability to change the bit rate is valuable, says Matthew Hubbard, Atmel's business development manager for wireless and communication products, because that allows users to adapt the system to the conditions. "There may be noise in your environment or other problems that affect performance," he says. "By slowing down the bit rate, you give the reader time to pick up the signals. You can achieve longer read ranges."

Atmel says it's working with companies in the United States and Europe to produce tags based on the Tagidu chip. Samples as die-on-wafer are available now. Pricing starts at 46 U.S. cents for 10,000 chips or more.

Fislage says Atmel has been active in the development of the EPC Gen 2 standard, but he says Atmel has customers that don't want to wait for the standard to be finalized and then for companies to develop tags and readers based on the standard. "We see a big market developing for EPC chips, including Class 2 chips with more features on them," he says. "But our customers need a solution they can deploy globally today."

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