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Gen 2 Tags Track Runner, Motorcycle Speeds

Two new systems allow runners and motorcycle racers to track their finish times with passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags
By Claire Swedberg
In a similar application that tracks motorcycles rather than runners, Alien Technology has partnered with motor-sports management company Hardcard Systems to provide another system that employs passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags to time participants in sports competitions—in this case, motorcycle races. The two companies are currently field testing for motor-sports timing and scoring. The system, using Alien tags attached to motorcycles, allows for the tracking of the time each motorcyclist reaches the finish line within a tenth of a second.

Hardcard and Alien have been testing the system at California's Buttonwillow Raceway since December 2007, says Andrew Leisner, a managing partner at Hardcard, with eight motorcycles traveling at about 140 mph. The partners also began testing the system this week at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, located in Monterey, Ca.

The battery-powered transponders generally used for motorcycle racing can cost between $700 and $800 apiece, according to Leisner. The transponders—which weigh about a half a kilogram each and are the size of a pack of cards—transmit a signal to copper wire loops embedded in the track surface. In order for the tags to operate properly, their batteries must be recharged according to a specific charging schedule.

"I always thought there must be an easier way to do this," Leisner says. "My question was, could we replace these heavy transponders with RFID tags?" He began working with Alien Technology in 2007 and says, "It takes the per-user cost from $600 to $800 dollars to a few dollars."

The existing transponder system is extremely accurate, Leisner says, albeit bulky. It can measure a racer's time to within one-thousandth of a second. Despite such a high level of accuracy, Leisner says, race officials tend to rely on finish-line cameras and their own visual review of a finish line to determine who won a race.

With the new RFID system, Hardcard is employing Alien ALR-9900 interrogators to capture tags as they pass specific locations on Buttonwillow's and Laguna Seca's racetracks. Although the partners have only conducted simulated races to date, Leisner says he plans to begin testing the system in actual motorcycle races this summer. The readers can capture tags from a distance of up to 50 feet, ensuring they can read all the way across a track, which typically measures 30 to 40 feet wide. Each motorcycle has two adhesive, plastic-encased Alien M-Tags attached to it. In addition, the research team is also testing Alien Squiggle tags, attaching them to a variety of locations on the motorcycle.

Hardcard has tested the placement of antennas overhead, as well as on the side of the track, and has placed tags on helmets and on different sections of the motorcycle. The Alien interrogator can transmit its data to a back-end system via a Wi-Fi or cabled connection, and Hardcard software enables users to view and compare the results of numerous racers. All such information is stored on the Hardcard server, Leisner says, and the reader interprets the exact instant the racer crosses the finish line.

Thus far, Leisner states, when it came to read rates in simulated races, "Alien hardware nailed it." Comparing the Alien tags with the active transponders typically used for motorcycle races, he adds, "They are drastically smaller, they don't need to be charged, they weigh less and [they] are disposable." According to Leisner, Hardcard expects to make the system commercially available in the first quarter 2009.

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