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The Real World of Active RFID Tags

Here's how the technology is being used today to solve real problems, and what's in store for the future.
By John Shoemaker
Jun 22, 2014

Businesses need answers, not just more technology. They require applications that leverage technology to solve problems today and will lead to additional solutions tomorrow. Specifically, what is real today—and what will be real in the near term—for active ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID solutions that will support effective business applications?

Basics on Active UHF RFID
Currently, ruggedized active (battery-powered) UHF RFID tags can be read from a distance of 300 feet to more than 1,500 feet away, while passive RFID tags offer an effective range of less than 30 feet, even while exposed to very harsh environments, including temperature extremes and even under many feet of snow. Reading tags on, in or around steel, iron or other metal assets no longer presents a problem. Active tags can also be read while moving at 60 miles per hour or more, with near 100 percent reliability.

The readers, not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes, can be in fixed positions and aided by ground loops and other devices to ensure high accuracy for determining identification, time, direction and location. The UHF frequency band is desirable for active tags, due to general acceptance by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and is currently used in a wide variety of applications—from bridge and highway toll collection to container tracking. The UHF signals do not interfere with portable smartphones, consumer wireless devices and other transmitters. Therefore, accuracy is very high and interference is never a problem.

Telematics, Vehicle and Cargo Tracking
Tens of thousands of trucks and other vehicles can be tracked as they move into and out of distribution centers, seaports, warehouses and other facilities, in order to ensure efficient operations, environmental concerns, safety and security. What is new is the concept of instantly identifying the driver along with the truck's cab, trailer and cargo—each with its own tag—at a gate. If all four do not match up as expected, then an alert is issued immediately.

Integrating this function with other capabilities, such as weigh scales, will ensure, for example, that trucks deliver what is needed and leave empty, and that all is confirmed at the gates with time and date stamps. Going further is integration with other technologies, including video, photography and license plate recognition, as well as bar-code labels, passive UHF and high-frequency (HF) tags, and active RFID sensors, such as those designed for monitoring cargo temperatures (in the case of refrigerated units, or reefers). Additionally, integrating software will allow this data to feed enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for such applications as time and attendance, payroll, accounts payable, inventory and materials management. All of this information creates intelligence that can be presented on an operations dashboard in real time.

Construction Sites
Requiring fabricators to tag components at their factories before shipping the parts to construction sites allows the automated capture of tagged items' data upon delivery. This saves an enormous amount of labor at the construction site to ensure accurate goods receipt supporting the construction schedule. Such automation reduces or eliminates the need for personnel to manually interrogate every component's bar-code label.

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