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New Active RFID System Strives to Eliminate the 'Overhead'

InPoint says its system—consisting of "dumb tags" that transmit only an ID number, and low-cost reader modules that plug into computers—can read and locate more than 1,000 tags per second in highly metallic environments.
By Claire Swedberg
InPoint has yet to make Roll-Call commercially available, but it is seeking partners to help sell the solution for use in the health-care, defense or retail industries. The company, which received a National Science Foundation grant to develop the technology, hopes to begin selling the Roll-Call system within a year after developing partnerships and building a commercial infrastructure based on the current prototype. It is now in the process of creating a smaller, less expensive version of the tag. Currently, the tag measures approximately 1 inch square and a quarter inch thick, but the firm hopes to make it small enough to fit on a ring for jewelry retailers, and to bring the per-tag cost from its current $30 down to $1 within the next five years.

There are other systems that can achieve high read rates in challenging environments as well, such as Mojix's STAR system. In the Mojix system, one or more STAR receivers (readers) manage a network of eNode RF transmitters potentially covering an area of up to 250,000 square feet, and providing a tag read rate of up to 700 passive UHF EPC Gen 2 tags per second. The STAR system, Mojix claims, can read tags as far as 600 feet away, and identify their locations in 3-D to within a 1-foot radius (see Mojix Takes Passive UHF RFID to a New Level). Lufthansa, in fact, is using the STAR system to track pallets in a 50,000-square-foot warehouse at Frankfurt Airport (see Lufthansa Expands RFID Use).

The unpackaged prototype of InPoint's Roll-Call tag.

Passive EPC Gen 2 RFID tags are available for less than 25 cents apiece—a fraction of the $30 that a Roll-Call tag would currently cost, assuming it were commercially available. The InPoint readers, however, offer similar results at a low cost, Fenson says. An interrogator consisting of a reader module connected to a single computer (if using the off-the-shelf Linux box that InPoint provides) is expected to cost a user about $350. "We anticipate that a 'starter' kit of 100 tags, 10 reader modules, three hubs and standard Roll-Call software will sell for less than $10,000," he states. "Additional tags and reader modules will sell for under $30 apiece in small volume, and additional hubs for less than $350, also at small volume."

Although EPC tags were initially designed to be encoded only with a unique ID number, they now are available with extra user memory for data storage, and can be queried by a reader, thereby transmitting the overhead that the InPoint system has eliminated. And because EPC tags are passive, Fenson notes, the read range is not usually as great as what the Roll-Call tags would offer, though Mojix claims its STAR system can read passive EPC tags from a distance of 600 feet.

A prototype of the tags and readers is currently being tested by two DOD agencies and two health-care facilities, all located in New Jersey, to evaluate the system's ability to track items in challenging environments.

"We are at the stage where we have the technology that we think is applicable across many industries," Fenson says. For example, the DOD's Communications-Electronics Research, Development, and Engineering Center (CERDEC), in Fort Monmouth, purchased a kit that included 10 Roll-Call tags, four reader modules and a single hub, as well as software to manage the readers and interpret the tag-read data. The agency utilized the kit to test the Roll-Call system's ability to track military inventory, such as equipment destined for Iraq, though Fenson declines to provide additional details of that testing.

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