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Researchers Testing RFID for Protecting Endangered Plants

The University of Kent's conservation and electronics departments have completed in-house testing of a UHF RFID system to detect the presence of tagged cycads—and to send alerts if a tag stops transmitting, which could indicate a possible poacher.
By Claire Swedberg

The researchers installed a Favite RFID reader portal and a processor system in an indoor location to track the presence of plants. They then moved it outdoors to test the technology in that setting on local trees, Roberts says.

According to the researchers, their goal is to install the technology at national parks and other locations, in order to protect the plants in the wild. Because such plants typically grow within a small area, the use of passive UHF RFID would enable most of a specific plant population to be monitored. In addition, Roberts explains, some plants could be tagged, while other plants would remain untagged, but would have an empty container attached to them. These containers would appear to be tags, but in fact would be empty. In the latter case, he notes, just the presence of the reader could provide sufficient visual deterrent to potential poachers that they would leave the plants alone.

John Batchelor
The technology is designed with software to expect reads from specific tags. If someone were to tamper with a tag or simply remove a tagged cycad, the system would detect that action and forward an alert to authorized parties via a text message.

The key challenge for the researchers, Batchelor reports, has been designing the tag and case so that tampering would always damage the tag. "Our next design iteration would consider a chip with in-built tamper detection," he states, "so that we can actively detect theft, rather than just indirectly through loss of a signal."

At present, the team is still determining how the reader will best be powered—via solar power harvesting, for instance, or with a battery. The device could forward data to a hosted server via a satellite or cellular connection.

Although testing has initially focused on wild plants, Roberts says, he sees other use cases for the solution as well. For example, cycads or other high-value plants could be tracked in botanical gardens, greenhouses or other commercial operations. He has also considered testing the use of RFID technology with sensors to track the health of ornamental fish. A tag and sensor could be attached to a bag in which an individual fish is stored, and could measure the pH level of the water contained within that bag. Users such as international shippers could interrogate the tag to determine whether the water was healthy for that particular fish.

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