Appliance Maker, Logistics Providers Test Passive RFID Container Seal

By Claire Swedberg

The developers—IPICO, E.J Brooks and Tenacent—say their new seal, which includes tamper detection, is a simpler, low-cost alternative to active tags.


IPICO, E.J. Brooks and Tenacent are involved in pilot tests of a low-cost, disposable RFID-enabled cargo seal in China and South Africa. Designed to tracks goods through ports and across borders, the Brooks-IPICO-Tenacent (BIT) Intermodal Electronic Container Seal consists of a passive IPICO UHF RFID tag linked to a trip wire that detects tampering and integrated with a seal designed by E.J. Brooks. Systems integrator Tenacent holds patents related to the device.

The BIT seal complies with the ISO 17712 standard, which sets minimum strength requirements for high-security seals. Its passive UHF RFID tag currently uses IPICO’s proprietary RFID air-interface protocol, IP-X, but a version will be available, he says, that will support both IP-X and the EPC Gen 2 standard. The tags have up to 1 kilobit of read-write memory and can be read by border patrol or other officials handling the cargo with RFID readers.

Alwyn Hoffman

Hoffman says IPICO will carry out a pilot involving the BIT seal on a toll road in South Africa that connects Johannesburg to Durban, the largest port on the Indian Ocean coast. “We will be working with South African customs, South African ports and several logistics companies,” he explains, to demonstrate how the technology works and how it could fit into the country’s existing processes for verifying cargo security.

The first application of the pilot includes applying a seal to containers carrying incoming cargo. The security concern in this case is preventing tax evasion by ensuring that goods are not mismarked as being shipped to a neighboring country where customs and duties are not required. In addition, the seals are intended to ensure that the containers comply with potential future international mandates for cargo security. The private-sector participants, whom Hoffman has declined to identify, consist of South African logistics companies. These participants want increased cargo visibility, he says, to improve their own internal security and efficiency. The pilot begins in May.

The second phase of a similar pilot in China will involve working with Chinese customs and port authorities, as well as a multinational manufacturer of large household appliances that must comply with Wal-Mart mandates. The goal will be to track the cargo from China to the United States inexpensively, and to demonstrate end-to-end visibility. Phase one—attaching the seal and reading it at the manufacturing site—was undertaken at the site of the manufacturer in Qingdao. Although phase one was completed in November, the second phase (which will include local ports and customs) has not yet begun, and a start date has not been set.

IPICO says it has reduced the cost of RFID container-seal technology by developing a seal based on passive rather than active RFID. The seal supports fewer functions than those utilizing active RFID tags—which can include temperature, shock or humidity sensors—being used by some shippers. “Its primary role is supply chain security,” says Alwyn Hoffman, IPICO’s executive vice president. However, the BIT seal verifies only that it has not been broken—if the container is compromised in other ways, this seal will not detect it.

The BIT seal currently supports only the IP-X air-interface protocol, Hoffman says, which is preferred by countries with limited spectrum availability. In the fourth quarter of this year, he notes, a new version will be available that will be able to support both IP-X and EPC Gen 2. The new version will be equipped to respond in either IP-X or EPC mode, depending on the type of interrogator addressing the tag. IP-X allows the reading of tags moving at higher speeds than is possible using EPC Gen 2, he explains, adding that many countries’ limited spectrum makes the use of EPC Gen 2 impractical.

“This includes Europe and China,” Hoffman says, “where EPC Gen 2 readers must be time-synchronized to operate many readers at one site.” IP-X allows the use of UHF RFID in countries with less UHF spectrum available than in the United States. “Combining both technologies on the same product will enable the same seal to be read in China using IP-X, and in the U.S. using EPC.”

Data related to the seal, its location and any effort to tamper with it could be transmitted to the user’s back-end system. If the trip wire is broken, the RFID tag detects the change in the seal’s status and communicates this to an RFID reader when the tag ID is read. Hoffman says end users can initially be expected to host their own data, which will be posted to a server as each transaction—sealing or inspection—is completed. IPICO’s goal is to establish a centralized data vault operated by a third party, able to hold data about each shipment. Individual end users could use their data for their own purposes, while the third-party version could be utilized in the case of an audit if irregularities are suspected.

The seal’s status can be confirmed by customs or border control using fixed overhead readers at port entrances. IPICO provides handheld and fixed readers compatible with these tags. If customs officials need to open a container, they can replace the BIT seal with another one and write the shipment-related data linked to it, along with the identity of the cargo’s issuer. The read-write memory supports more than 200 additional characters, other than the seal’s unique ID number—which, to prevent cloning, is encoded onto the tag at the point of its manufacture. The tag’s memory will typically be used to store a summarized version of the trail of custody for the container, such as when and where it was sealed and by whom, as well as when, where and by whom it was inspected.

At high volumes (several million seals annually), pricing to end users will be below $3 each, Hoffman says. He expects the first commercial project to be driven by customs and port authorities. “Ports authorities will most likely start using the technology at the same time to better control operations at ports and border posts.”

Once these systems are in place, Hoffman says he expects commercial players—cargo owners and logistics companies—to start using it for internal control purposes, to eliminate paperwork and streamline operations. This should enable them tosimultaneously improve security and efficiency.