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RFID Mail Tracking Expands to 21 Countries

This month 21 countries will begin using RFID to track delivery times for international mail. The Universal Postal Union expects the system will be adopted by more than 100 of its member nations.
Aug 11, 2009This article was originally published by RFID Update.

August 11, 2009—This month 21 countries will begin using RFID to track international mail in a system that is scheduled to expand into more than 100 member countries of the Universal Postal Union (UPU). RFID tags are being slipped into thousands of test letters that are sent to measure international delivery times and monitor compliance with the performance standards set by the UPU, which is the United Nations agency headquartered in Berne, Switzerland charged with coordinating mail operations among national postal authorities around the world.

The UPU created the system to monitor international mail, but national postal services can use the same infrastructure to record additional mail flow through their systems and to track transport containers and other assets.

"With this project RFID will show up in many more countries for mail tracking," Ashley Stephenson, chairman of Reva Systems, whose Tag Acquisition Processor (TAP) RFID data management products are being used in the system.

At any time there will be tens of thousands of RFID-tagged test letters in the international mail system, according to Stephenson. Expansion beyond the original 21 countries will begin next year. More than 100 countries are expected to adopt the system, and it could spread to the entire UPU, which has approximately 150 member nations. The system is similar in function to the one the Finnish national postal service implemented last year (see In Finland, Your (RFID) Chip's in the Mail).

RFID readers and TAP appliances are being installed at international mail entry and exit points in 21 countries, totaling about 30 facilities. UPU researchers will slip passive Gen2 UHF tags into letters they send to each other. The tags will be read automatically when the letters pass through portals in the originating country's outbound international mail facility, and again at the inbound facility at the receiving nation. The Reva TAP processors will format the RFID read data according to data standards the UPU developed and EPCIS standards from EPCglobal, then transmit the processed information to a central computer at the UPU's headquarters in Berne.

The use of passive Gen2-standard tags is significant according to Richard Wishart, a former consultant to the project who is based in the UK. He was involved in system planning, IT architecture development, technology trials, vendor selection and other activities leading up to the rollout before his contract expired a few weeks ago. RFID-driven mail tracking systems have been done before, but battery-assisted tags were commonly used, according to Wishart.

"One of the big issues in the project was deciding which RFID technology to use. We really wanted something where the business case would work for smaller countries with less volume," he said. "We were looking for something that was more open and less expensive than what was traditionally used before."

One of the challenges was to ensure the tags would be read consistently, because each mail facility is set up differently and the metal cages used to transport mail in bulk are a potential source of interference. Early adopters of mail tracking systems used battery-assisted tags to boost the read range and help overcome facility inconsistencies. Wishart said passive UHF technology performance has improved appreciably in recent years and exceeded expectations for the UPU system.

"We were looking at 95 percent read performance and we got 100 percent," he said. "I think we hit the sweet spot when a lot of the technologies we're using had become mainstream and gone into production."

The system uses tags from Alien Technology and readers from Motorola. AIDA Centre is the systems integrator. The firm previously led the development of Spain's RFID system for internal mail tracking (see Ándale! Spain's Postal Service Deploys RFID).

The UPU approved the project rollout after a successful trial that tracked international mail among Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Separately, earlier this year Saudi Arabia announced plans for an RFID system to track home delivery (see Saudi Post Updates RFID System for Carriers). RFID market intelligence firm IDTechEx has predicted the postal industry will eventually become the second-largest market for RFID systems after the retail supply chain.
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