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RFID Heads for the End Zone

Testing of the technology at the Super Bowl showed promise for tracking video equipment.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 08, 2007RFID technology may be on its way to a touchdown. At the recent Super Bowl XLI game, the Sports Video Group (SVG)—an association of broadcasters, team owners, sports leagues and sports technology and equipment providers working to advance the creation, production and distribution of sports content—tested whether the technology could improve visibility into the whereabouts of expensive video equipment rented by broadcasters for the game. The pilot incorporated OATSystems' RFID software and video equipment from rental company Bexel. While the pilot produced positive results, some problems involving item-level tagging emerged, and it became clear that more than just a couple of handheld readers would be required for the tracking system to be truly effective.

The SVG's advisory board requested the pilot in 2006, says Martin Porter, the association's executive director. Its goal was to determine how well an RFID-based tracking system would operate at a large sporting event, and whether it could assist in tracking hundreds of pieces of expensive video equipment used by broadcasters at televised games.

OATSystems' Anurag Nagpal uses an RFID interrogator to search for equipment under tarps at the Super Bowl.

Typically, a broadcaster uses some of its own video equipment for an event like the Super Bowl, renting the bulk of what it needs from Bexel and similar companies. Bexel trucks the equipment to the site, where it is unloaded several days before the game and dispersed to hundreds of production crew members from the television networks.

To keep track of the gear it rents out, Bexel has used bar-coded labels on equipment-storage cases. Often, many items are loaded into a single case, or one item might be divided into several parts in two or more cases. Workers at the Bexel warehouse would scan bar codes as the cases were loaded on trucks, says Lee Estroff, a technical sales representative at Bexel Broadcast Services Group, then scan them again as they were returned to the facility. At the site of the sporting event, broadcasters' video crews, most of whom work together on a regular basis, manually checked out the equipment needed.

"It's a very manual process," says Paul Cataldo, OATSystems' vice president of marketing. "The video crew has a very short window for getting set up before the game, and they need the right combination of equipment."

The RFID pilot included CBS, which used video equipment owned by Bexel, shipped to the game site from two of the rental agency's facilities. Bexel employees generated passive Alien Technology EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags at their offices by inputting details about each item before reading the tag's ID number, then printing the labels with these details on the front. Bexel employees at the Super Bowl site then attached the labels to the items, says Anurag Nagpal, OATSystems' program manager, as well as to about 300 cases. As production crews checked an item out and back in, workers used handheld interrogators to read the RFID label and view details about the item electronically.

At the Super Bowl site, SVG staff workers utilized two Motorola MC906R handheld computers, which have built-in RFID interrogators and a keypad for data entry, to capture the unique RFID number of each item or case. As operators interrogated each piece of equipment to be checked out, the MC906R's screen displayed the name of that equipment. The OAT user interface on the handheld reader then prompted the user to enter the initials of the person checking it out. The user entered this data via the keypad, and also selected the location where the equipment was being taken ("off-site," for example, or "to the stadium").

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