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RFID Enables M2M and M2O

While the technology offers great potential for machine-to-machine communication, its real value lies in machine-to-object communication.
By Mark Roberti
May 16, 2011Last week, an author and consultant at an IT research and analysis firm interviewed me about radio frequency identification's role in machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. I think it's worth sharing some of my thoughts with RFID Journal's readers.

Machine-to-machine is a broad term that covers technologies enabling devices, such as utility meters and vending machines, to communicate directly with other machines—or, more commonly, data-capture devices and computers. M2M systems employ wired or wireless connections, and often involve sensors to capture another machine's status, such as the volume of liquid within a container, or the temperature of a shipment of pharmaceuticals.

There is a great deal of M2M communication currently in place. Cars equipped with the OnStar system, for instance, can sign up for a monthly Vehicle Diagnostic Report, whereby a car communicates engine performance data to a computer that then analyzes it and creates a report. In addition, there are industrial printers that communicate with their manufacturer, via the Internet, when inks need to be replenished, and there are vending machines that communicate sales and replenishment requirements via cell phone.

Presently, the vast majority of M2M communication is performed via the Internet if machines are wired or have Wi-Fi capability, and by cellular network if they are not connected online. RFID has the potential to greatly expand M2M communication, and to also create machine-to-object (M2O) communication, which will be vastly more important.

Near-Field Communication (NFC), a type of high-frequency RFID technology, was designed as a short-range M2M interface, a means by which consumer devices, such as cell phones, computers and home-audio equipment, could share information. But NFC is being used more broadly now for M2M communication. It can, for instance, be utilized in access-control systems to enable a person to unlock a door with an NFC-enabled cell phone. In Japan, moviegoers can download tickets to a cell phone, and then swipe their phone near an NFC-enabled turnstile in order to gain entry to the theater.

Active RFID-enabled sensors, whether they communicate directly with a reader or with each other in a mesh network, also hold great promise for M2M communication. There are already examples of companies using an RFID transponder linked to a device that senses the weight of parts bins and communicates when parts run low (see WhereNet Replenishes Parts). The military is employing RFID temperature and moisture sensors inside shipping containers to ensure that avionics components are not damaged by exposure to moisture (see Aircraft Parts Maker to Use EPC Tags to Track Moisture Exposure). And DHL has been tracking shipments of pharmaceuticals with RFID sensors that alert the company when temperature-sensitive drugs are exposed to unacceptable levels of heat or cold (see Best Use of RFID in a Service: A Prescription for Spoiled Drugs).

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