A National RFID Plan

By Mark Roberti

Every country in the world would do well to fashion a plan for deploying RFID systems in health care, the food supply, the supply chain, drug management and more.

I watched President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week, and I have to say I was disappointed. There was nothing terrible about it, and it was capably delivered, but what bothered me was the lack of vision. Sure, the president set some dramatic goals—he said 85 percent of the nation's energy should come from clean sources by 2035—but he missed a great opportunity to spell out a plan for "winning the future," the theme of his speech.

In my view, there are several areas in which countries can make investments that will make them more competitive in the years ahead. One is surely renewable energy. China knows this well, and has been investing heavily. Another is information technology. Countries that build faster supercomputers—and develop new ways to mine what's valuable out of the information they collect—will do well. And the third is having a smart infrastructure that allows for the more efficient and safer movement of goods through the supply chain.

I won't comment on the first two opportunities, because they are not my areas of expertise. But let me spell out what I would advise any government seeking to make its country more competitive in the future.

1. Deploy active RFID systems at your ports. The Internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS) were developed by the U.S. military, and were then commercialized. Governments could give a boost to the competitiveness of their companies by subsidizing the development of an active RFID infrastructure based on the Dash7 global standard. Readers could be placed on cranes at ports, as well as at entries and exits, so shippers would only need to apply tags to be able to gain visibility of the goods arriving from overseas. The government would need some way to filter the data so that businesses could get information about only their own shipments, and not about those of their competitors. But this hardly seems like a big obstacle.

2. Deploy an RFID-based real-time location system (RTLS) at all airports. In many industrialized countries, airports are stretched beyond capacity. Using an RTLS to track containers for baggage and cargo, ground equipment, employees and so forth would ensure that airports operate more smoothly and efficiently, and that the data could be provided to those shipping cargo through airports.

3. Deploy RFID on major roads, bridges and tunnels. Radio frequency identification is currently being used at many bridge and tunnel crossings around the world for toll collection. RFID can also be used to monitor the usage and conditions of infrastructure. The same Dash7 tags used at ports could be read to monitor the usage of tunnels and bridges, and could potentially rationalize toll charges (companies would get charged based on road usage, rather than on a flat fee). There are also tags that can monitor metal erosion, which would make inspecting bridges less expensive and easier to perform.

4. Launch a partnership with private industry to develop a passive RFID infrastructure for tracking food. There have been numerous outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the United States over the past few years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. Tracking the sources of outbreaks quickly could greatly reduce these numbers. Bar codes won't work in a field with mud and water, so RFID is a natural option. The technology to track food exists, but small farmers can't afford to deploy it. We need a national system for tracking goods, with an agreement on standards. We also need government assistance that moves the food industry forward in a way that makes a safe and more efficient food chain, without burdening businesses.

5. Launch a partnership with private industry to develop a passive RFID infrastructure for tracking drugs. In many countries, counterfeit drugs are a serious problem. It costs drug manufacturers millions of dollars, and is a health risk. Governments could help solve the problem by working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop systems and standards to track drugs on a national level. The goal would be to phase in the item-level tracking of pill bottles and vials of drugs, in order to create electronic pedigrees in a way that both increases the safety of the drug supply chain, and also enhances the efficiencies of all players.

6. Assist health-care providers with the use of RFID to track assets and improve efficiencies. In the United States, health-care costs are soaring. Hospitals that have deployed RFID-based RTLS solutions have saved significant sums. The U.S. government could assist hospitals with grants that would enable them to deploy these systems more rapidly. This wouldn't dramatically change the cost equation, but it could help all hospitals lower costs and improve patient care. In countries in which the government runs the health-care system, RFID could reduce government spending, and the savings could then be reinvested in the programs described above.

In my view, governments can help fund the building of the RFID infrastructure necessary to track goods through the supply chain, and then allow private companies to utilize this infrastructure to gain visibility into the locations of their products, as well as authenticate those goods, in order to reduce fraud and counterfeiting. Mandating solutions is not the answer—but a public-private sector partnership can lead to greater competitiveness for those firms that take advantage of the system.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.