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RFID, Wireless Sensing Collide at WSS Conference

In stark contrast to last year, this year's IDG Wireless Sensing Solutions was sprinkled with sessions that dealt specifically with RFID issues, a clear indication that RFID and wireless sensors are increasingly overlapping.
Oct 10, 2005This article was originally published by RFID Update.

October 10, 2005—What a difference a year makes, especially when you are looking at RFID and its relationship to the embedded wireless sensing market.

Last year, most of the companies attending IDG Expos' inaugural Wireless Sensing Solutions (WSS) conference held just outside Chicago were heavily involved in the nuts and bolts of wireless sensing devices – which included remote wireless sensors for building automation application and ruggedized hardware for deep sea exploration. Most of the talk at the conference focused on communications standards, battery issues and reducing the size of sensor technology, with almost no reference to RFID systems and applications.

This year, however, the conference and exhibition drew roughly 25% more attendees and the program was respectably sprinkled with sessions that specifically dealt with RFID issues. In fact, one of the major trends and discussion threads at the event, this time held in downtown Chicago, was the increasingly blurred lines between active and intelligent RFID sensors and traditional sensor networks.

"There is lots of discussion right now focusing on process innovation, logistics tracking and smart systems," notes Mike Hackerson, a partner with IBM's Aerospace and Defense Industry Sector who took part in a panel discussion specifically addressing RFID issues. RFID is not only being used to monitor where things are, but the condition base. "There is a fundamental shift in the technology," he added, which will merge both RFID and sensing into a single services-oriented environment.

Sensor Saturation

One of the factors driving the convergence of RFID and embedded sensing are advancements in RFID technologies, which have allowed these devices to go beyond simple location tracking to performing more sophisticated monitoring and control functions. The Korean government, for example, is presently involved in a project to develop a sensor-saturated city that will employ both passive and active RFID systems to assist in elder care, manage traffic and parking, monitor street cleaning and other public works activities, and provide disaster monitoring.

"Most RFID applications now focus on industrial and manufacturing applications, but in Korea they have started asking customers questions about what experiences they want through RFID and as a result have spawned new markets, "says Geunho Lee, a senior research fellow with the u-City Forum in Korea.

Most of these markets are service-based, he points out, with such familiar devices as cell phones called into play as remote monitoring and control devices. Samsung Electronics, for example, is now developing a mobile phone with a built-in RFID reader that will be available for trials next year and can be used for a wide range of applications, from medical services to entertainment. The company is also a major backer of the Mobile RFID Forum, a consortium of some 67 companies – many based in the U.S. – that are looking into the evolution of RFID applications and their integration into multi-level sensing networks.

The people on the funding side of the fence seem to agree that hybrid RFID and wireless sensing systems could be the spark that ignites some serious investment activity. The market for RFID-related consulting, implementation and managed services, for instance, is expected to grow to roughly $2B by 2008, according to a report released in December 2004 by International Data Corp. (IDC). The report also claims that up to 66% of enterprise organizations were considering RFID and auto-sensing solutions in 2004.

Pulling the Trigger

However, gun-shy venture capitalists are still waiting for that key applications driver that will push interest in the industry to the edge. Representatives from leading VC firms like APEX Venture Partners, Mobius Venture and AXA Private Equity all agreed that key applications and substantial customer bases are still missing in the sensing world, which is creating some degree of reluctance among the bigger players in the investment community. Limited opportunities in the government market were also cited as a problem - although some attendees at a session specifically focusing on government sensing solutions took issue with this opinion, pointing to new business avenues specifically created by Homeland Security mandates.

"Companies starting out in this sector will all require some work the first time out," says Ron Finlayson, a director of MetaCapita, a VC start-up that is building an investment fund that will primarily fund efforts that initially target government applications. He believes that a lot of new RFID and wireless sensing projects will be driven by government opportunities, which then evolve into commercial applications. "VCs who are not comfortable with the government sector obviously aren't going to get anywhere."

In terms of technology, all of the usual suspects were topics of discussion, including battery technology and the quest to build RFID and auto-sensing devices that can offer a longer lifespan and more frequent communications. The ZigBee Alliance and its lower-power communications specification was well represented in conference sessions and on the exhibit floor, with devices and solutions that claimed compatibility with a specification that will not be generally available in actual products until sometime next year.

Most people "are looking for a solution out of the box, and don't want to spend a lot of time on programming," explains Brian Blum, a project manager with Embedded Research Solutions. "They're not really grandiose problems, but developing networks that handle your problems today."

Juan Alvarez, marketing manager for microcontrollers at Texas Instruments, promoted the low-power benefits of Zigbee as well as its fast wake-up time – important when dealing with devices that transmit short and frequent bursts of information. "The key is to minimize the externals, which will result in a solution that is much more cost effective," he noted.

At least two vendors on the WSS exhibit floor, however, offered power alternatives that could negate Zigbee's biggest benefit: its ability to sip power. Newtrax Technologies, Inc., based in Montreal, provided details on a low-power mesh technology architecture that can be used by OEMs and system integrators to develop solutions for sensing and control applications in harsh environments. Firefly Power Technologies, LLC was also on the exhibit floor, talking about a technology it licensed from the University of Pittsburgh that can wirelessly transmit power via radio frequencies to discrete and embedded devices. The technology can essentially be used to take active RFID, machine-to-machine and other discrete devices "off the grid" and independent of hard-wired or battery power, says a company spokesman.
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