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Microchip Markets RFID Technology that Transmits via the Human Body

The company says its BodyCom active tags and readers are more secure than RFID technology that transmits signals through the air, making it suitable for controlling access to cars, buildings, power tools, computers and firearms.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 06, 2013

Several companies are currently beta-testing a radio frequency identification system from Microchip Technology that uses the human body as a conduit for transmissions between an interrogator and a tag. Microchip's platform, known as BodyCom, can be utilized to control access to a building, or to control the usage of a device, such as a computer or a weapon. The companies, located in various parts of the world, are testing ways in which to integrate the technology into their own solutions, such as keyless vehicle-entry systems.

While traditional RFID systems transmit data through the air, simply requiring a tag or a receiving unit to come within transmission range of an interrogator, the BodyCom solution requires that both tag and interrogator be within close proximity to a person's body. By leveraging the body to transmit a signal, BodyCom does not need as much power, nor does it require a conventional RFID reader antenna, according to Edward Dias, the embedded-security business-development manager of Microchip's MCU8 (8-bit microcontroller) division. This would mean the battery life of a device such as a remote control or an ID tag would be longer, he explains, and that the transmission itself would be more secure, since there would be no over-the-air RF signals that could be intercepted.

The BodyCom development kit, available from Microchip for $149, includes a base unit and two battery-powered RFID tags.

The system's base unit (reader) employs a capacitive coupling pad instead of a conventional reader antenna to transmit a 125 kHz signal (or "challenge") via the human body—which acts as a secure communication channel—to a tag (or "mobile unit"). The mobile unit then responds by transmitting an 8 MHz signal, encoded with that tag's unique ID number. The tag's transmission also travels along the body and back to the base unit, which responds by triggering an action, such as unlocking the door of a car or building.

For approximately 15 years, Microchip has provided wireless technology used in such devices as garage door openers and keyless-entry car locks consisting of a radio receiver and a transmitter. However, Dias says, those systems typically communicate via a low-frequency (LF) inductive field, resulting in an over-the-air signal that car thieves or other individuals can tamper with. There are devices available on the market that can, for example, capture transmissions from a car lock over the air, and relay that signal farther away to a vehicle owner's remote controller, thereby tricking the system into thinking the remote is within close proximity to the door lock.

Consequently, in order to combat that security concern, traditional RFID systems may require a user to enter a password or provide some other manual action to prompt a response, such as unlocking a door. Using human conductivity makes such protective measures unnecessary, Dias says, since the transmission is secure.

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