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RFID Will Make Buildings Smart

Low-cost, battery-free sensors can be embedded in buildings to provide feedback on the state of those structures.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 14, 2016

When my son was heading off to study engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, outside of Boston, I suggested he look at areas that would likely become more important during his lifetime and, therefore, provide strong career opportunities. One example I gave him was smart buildings.

Buildings have been getting smarter in terms of energy efficiency. There are buildings that can provide all their own energy via solar panels, and all the water for toilets via rainwater collection systems. But when it comes to the buildings themselves, they remain as dumb as ever.

That will likely begin to change, albeit slowly. Last year, at our RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition, Smartrac introduced a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID sensor tag that can detect the presence of moisture (see Smartrac Presents Industry's First Passive Moisture-Level Sensing Inlay). The sensor device is battery-free and inexpensive and requires no maintenance, so it can be placed in walls permanently. For a very small additional cost, a building owner can now have an early leak-detection system that can pinpoint the location of a leak.

Also at last year's LIVE! event, Phase IV Engineering introduced a passive strain sensor that can detect the strain on rebar embedded in concrete. These sensors are being embedded in Seattle's Northgate Link Extension light-rail tunnel to help monitor structural integrity during construction (see Contractors Use RFID Sensors to Measure Strain in Seattle Rail Tunnels). The sensors have batteries, enabling them to log readings and store the collected data over time, but they can also work without batteries. So long after the batteries die, workers will be able to read the tags and ascertain the current level of strain on the rebar inside the tunnel walls.

It's likely that buildings in earthquake zones will one day be built with strain sensors. That way, in the event of a tremor, engineers could quickly—and safely—gather information regarding a building's structural integrity.

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