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RFID Business Applications

Radio frequency identification can be used in many different ways to create value. Here are the most common ways businesses are using RFID today.
By Bob Violino
RFID is also being used to secure assets. Most late-model cars come with an RFID reader in the steering column. A transponder is embedded in the plastic housing around the base of the key. The reader must receive the right ID from the key, or the car won't stop. This car immobilizer system has reduced auto theft by 50 percent since it was introduced in Europe in 1994.

Active RFID tags can be combined with motion sensors so that when objects—say, weapons stored in military depots—are moved without authorization, an alarm is sounded. RFID tags can be put on laptops and files containing sensitive documents to make sure they are not removed from a building without authorization.

An RFID bolt seal
After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., in 2001, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) conducted a number of tests of RFID seals to safeguard containers. Since it's impossible to check each of the millions of cargo containers entering United States ports each year, the DOT hopes to reduce the risk of terrorists sneaking weapons of mass destruction into the United States through the ports by putting an electronic seal on each container.

Seals are active RFID tags that have a bolt or some other mechanism for sealing a container. If the container is opened without authorization, that information is communicated to a computer the next time the RFID tag in the seal is read. Then, a warning can be sent and agents can check the container (see Securing Your Cargo With Seals).

Other Applications
There are many other innovative uses for RFID. One system uses active tags in a bracelet to locate children at theme parks (RFID Makes a Splash at Water Park). Intel has developed a prototype system that can help people suffering from Alzheimer's disease to function more normally (RFID Aids Alzheimer's Patients). Brink's, the security company, has created a system in France that destroys bills if they get too far from an RFID reader in an armored car (Brink's Arms Itself with RFID).

Wireless sensors represent the next stage beyond RFID. These can be passive or active RFID tags that are combined with temperature loggers, motion sensors, radiation sensors and so on. The U.S. military is funding research into simple RFID sensors that could detect pathogens in food. These could be used to protect the public against food-borne illnesses or even deliberate acts of terrorism.

Wireless sensors can also be tiny computers that run their own operating system, have onboard sensors and communicate data to one another. The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., is working on a new generation of wireless sensor networks. In early pilots, these have been used to measure soil and air temperatures, humidity and light in the MacAlpine Hills region of Antarctica; to gauge the movement of water across a water recharge basin just west of Tucson, Ariz., to automatically turn on sprinklers in dry areas of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. (subscribers, see NASA Creates Thinking RF Sensors).

As RFID technology evolves and becomes less expensive and more robust, it's likely that companies and RFID vendors will develop many new applications to solve common and unique business problems.

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