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New Method Promises Cheaper RFID Tag Development

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology this week announced the development of what they call an "RFID testbed," which will allow the testing of new tag prototypes more cheaply and effectively than existing tag design processes.
May 08, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

May 8, 2008—Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology this week announced the development of what they call an "RFID testbed," which will allow the testing of new tag prototypes more cheaply and effectively than existing tag design processes. RFID Update spoke with Gregory Durgin, assistant professor at George Tech's school of electrical and computer engineering, about the testbed system and its implications for new tag development.

At the core of the system is a chip emulator, which is a piece of hardware that emulates the signals of an RFID tag chip. An antenna design is attached to the emulator, then stimulated by an RFID reader to generate a signal. That signal -- which is the same signal that a real RFID tag with that antenna design would generate -- is measured and analyzed, including how it reacts to the physical environment. That process is then repeated for any number of antenna designs, as engineers improve and iterate them in pursuit of a final product. (Recall that the chip is the tag brain, where its storage and functionality reside. The antenna is the skinny coil that typically runs along the tag perimeter and gives it a distinctive look. The antenna design determines how the RF signal is received and transmitted back to the reader.)

According to Durgin, this new antenna prototyping method is very different from how RFID tag designs are currently developed. The typical method is computer simulation, in which engineers design and test tag prototypes using special software. "Hardware emulation [the testbed] can test things that software simulation cannot," said Durgin. "By taking a holistic approach, we can wring benefit out of the system that you can't get by just using a chip design software package."

Furthermore, if tag designers want to physically test a new chip design, they must spend tens of thousands of dollars having prototypes produced by a semiconductor manufacturer. "With our testbed, you don't have to spend $30,000 or $100,000 every time you want to test a new type of signaling protocol."

While there has been some interest from prospective investors in commercializing the technology, the researchers are primarily focused on collaborating with industry to refine and improve it. Durgin noted that they have been approached by manufacturers to use the testbed technology to enhance existing tag products. "Recently we've had a couple companies ask us to take a look at retrofitting their current RFID tag products to turn them into sensors." The testbed enabled them to quickly develop an experimental prototype that might otherwise have been prohibitively expensive to try. "We could mock up a sort of unorthodox tag for them really quickly, and take a look at what kind of signal it generated."

The testbed was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation. While it currently works at 915 MHz (the UHF range), the researchers have their eyes on developing antennas for use at much higher frequencies, like 5.7 GHz. In fact, the long-term goal of the grant is to explore and harness RF at those high frequencies. "This testbed is just the beginning of our ability to characterize the performance of different RFID tag antennas in a real channel and push these technologies to higher frequencies, longer read ranges, and overall higher reliability," Durgin was quoted in the announcement.
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