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Alien Adds Major Capabilities to Gen2 RFID Readers

Alien Technology introduced software that gives its readers the ability to determine the location, speed, and movement direction of RFID tags. The software also improves the ability to isolate individual tags in dense or fast-moving environments, which can improve airline baggage handling and other sortation applications.
Jun 23, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

June 23, 2008—Alien Technology today announced the addition of software features to its readers to determine the speed, direction, and location of passive UHF RFID tags as they are identified, and to better pinpoint individual tags within a cluster or a read zone.

"The technology allows you to know not only what data is in the tag, but where the tag is, what direction it's going, and how fast it's moving," Scot Stelter, director of reader product marketing for Morgan Hill, California-based Alien, told RFID Update.

The software makes these capabilities native to Alien's readers. These features can be performed on any standard tag the reader can recognize, with no proprietary tags or optional tag features required. Alien plans to release the new Intelligent Tag Reader (ITR) software by the end of the month. It will be included in its ALR-9900, ALR-9800, and ALR-8800, and will be made available to current customers as a free firmware upgrade. It has four main components:
  • ITR-Singulation, which helps readers identify individual tags when there are multiple items in the read zone, such as when several individual tagged items are moving past a reader on a high-speed conveyor, or when there are numerous tagged cartons or items within a pallet. Tags can be individually identified if they are only a couple inches apart from other tags, according to Stelter.
  • ITR-Velocity, which makes 30 calculations per second to determine the speed of a moving tag.
  • ITR-Directionality determines the direction a tag is moving.
  • ITR-Range calculates the relative distance between the tag and reader, which can be used to determine the tag's position and location. "We can't tell where an individual product is on a shelf full of tagged products, but we can tell if an item is in the area the size of a small room, about 10 by 10 feet," said Stelter. "That is good enough for a lot of asset tracking locations. Plus, a passive RFID tag costs about one-one hundredth of an active WiFi tag."
Stelter said Alien's customers have shown immediate interest in the singulation and direction capabilities. Airline baggage handling and other material handling operators are particularly interested in singulation, according to Stelter.

"It is very difficult to discern exactly which tag you're looking at when multiple tagged items are moving on a conveyor," Stelter said. "To get the most ROI, you really want to identify which tag it is so you can take some action."

As an example, Stelter noted that airline baggage handlers often have to pull individual pieces of luggage to divert them from being loaded onto a plane. RFID baggage handling systems have a high read rate for recognizing bag tags, but because luggage is loaded close together on conveyors, it is difficult for automatic diverters to isolate individual bags for handling. As a result, ten bags may be taken off the conveyor so workers can pull out the one or two that actually need to be diverted. Operators have responded either by slowing conveyor speeds or by increasing the space between items placed on the conveyor, according to Stelter. These accommodations prevent the conveyor system from working at full capacity. "You can substantially reduce your effort if you can identify the specific tag that requires action," he said. Airline baggage handling is one of Alien's targeted vertical markets.

Stelter thinks the directionality and velocity features could eventually become the widest used and most impactful, because of their potential to enable new retail merchandising applications. Many businesses could benefit from knowing if tagged items were moving in to or out of a room, Stelter said, but retailers in particular could use the information to assist replenishment, trigger in-aisle marketing, and otherwise customize the shopping experience for consumers. Alien competitor Impinj also noted the potential of these applications when it announced its tag direction sensing capabilities in November (see Impinj Claims RFID Tag Direction Victory).

The range finding feature also enables new ways to use passive RFID. Alien initially developed it to help a military customer improve cargo loading operations. "Typically a soldier stands on top of a pallet to attach the cargo hook that drops down from the helicopter. Standing there while the hook swings around is dangerous," said Stelter. "In the desert the sand kicks up and there's little or no visibility, so laser range finders are blind. We worked with the military to use RFID to determine the range between the hook and the cargo."

The fast-growing real-time locating system (RTLS) market provides many more commercial opportunities for the range-find capability. Various wireless technologies are used for RTLS, and each differs in its precision and limitations (see UWB Finding a Place in the RTLS Market for insight into various RTLS technologies). Passive UHF hasn't traditionally been used for RTLS because of its limited range and lack of precision relative to alternative technologies, but passive UHF-based systems are increasingly becoming available (see Startup Brings Locationing to Passive RFID and Goliath Offers an RTLS Solution Priced for David).

The new passive UHF RFID capabilities and emerging use cases result from the maturity of the market, Stelter said.

"Our new capabilities are a result of the Gen2 standard being mature and stable. That allows companies to focus their development efforts elsewhere."
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