French Project Aims to Create Holistic RFID Solutions

By Claire Swedberg

Spearheaded by Tagsys, the $32 million Spinnaker project will develop new ways of using passive HF and UHF RFID tags and readers to gain visibility throughout the supply chain.

A consortium of French institutes, laboratories and private companies have launched a project intended to accelerate radio frequency identification technology innovation and the subsequent adoption of high-frequency (HF) and ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) solutions in ways that they say haven't been previously seen. The project, overseen by RFID technology provider Tagsys and known as Spinnaker, is receiving nearly half of its $32 million in funding from government-backed French organization OSEO, which hopes that the three-year project will lead to the development of new technologies, as well as more jobs in France. The Spinnaker consortium intends to develop one or more full-scale solutions that it can offer to the retail industry, for the purpose of tracking goods and managing data throughout the supply chain and into the store. The group also seeks to develop RFID applications for other industries, such as health care and traffic management.

On a sailboat, spinnaker sails are designed to accelerate a vessel as it travels downwind. The consortium will attempt to do the same for the RFID industry, by developing new ways to utilize passive HF and UHF RFID tags and readers to gain visibility throughout the supply chain—from manufacturing sites where goods are produced to the consumers who use those products. The group—comprising eight research labs under the INP Grenoble LCIS, as well as four private companies, and the Institute for Research in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics (Inria)—intends to develop technology for which there may be many patents to follow, according to Christophe Moutot, Tagsys' manager of embedded systems.

Tagsys' Christophe Moutot

By providing €11 million ($14 million) to the project, OSEO expects to lend a boost to the French economy, based on what it foresees as technology innovation. OSEO was established in 2005 to provide assistance and financial support to the country's small and medium enterprises (SMEs). The agency reports to the French Ministry for Economy, Finance and Industry, as well as to the Ministry for Higher Education and Research. "Supporting innovative collaborative projects," says Didier Chaton, OSEO's innovation projects director, "is part of our mission given by the French government to OSEO." The agency will provide €4.3 million ($5.5 million) as a grant and €6.5 million ($8.4 million) as a cash advance. Spinnaker's participants, including Tagsys, will pay the remaining costs.

The project's origins can be traced to 2010, Moutot reports, when Tagsys began cultivating relationships for the co-development of technology with French universities and research institutes. By 2012, he says, "Tagsys decided to build a project that would bring innovative answers to try to address challenges in the RFID industry." Those challenges, he notes, stem from the lack of complete systems to provide visibility across a product's entire lifecycle, from manufacture to purchase. Although retailers, goods manufacturers and some distributors have been piloting or installing RFID solutions, there is little sharing of data between these parties at present. "We want to be able to build a complete system," Moutot states. "It will be a system that will use concepts different than those that have been used before." He declines, however, to provide many specifics regarding what those concepts might be.

The group commenced its work several months ago, Moutot says, with discussions of each party's goals and the roles each will play. Some early research, he adds, has begun as well. Most of the work will consist of software solutions, as well as ways in which passive HF and UHF RFID technologies can be used to offer full solutions enabling end users to share information with others in the supply chain.

One example is the use of UHF tags on products that could then be read by consumers or other parties via a mobile phone. Currently, some phones are equipped with 13.56 MHz Near Field Communication (NFC) HF readers, with more expected to be made available during the coming years. With this research, engineers will consider how passive UHF and HF RFID tags could be employed in conjunction—for example, by developing a mobile phone with built-in UHF and HF readers. In this way, a single passive UHF tag could be applied at a manufacturing site, and then be interrogated by participants throughout the supply chain, as well as by consumers who have a mobile phone.

According to Moutot, the consortium has yet to finalize decisions regarding which hardware providers it will work with as it develops solutions.

Private entities participating in the program, in addition to Tagsys, are Inside Secure, Information and Communication Science and Technology (STIC) and electrical parts manufacturer Legrand Group. Inside Secure develops and sells NFC and smart-card readers, while STIC is developing an RFID solution that will provide traffic information to highway drivers.

The group has set up a Spinnaker Web site, where some general information about the project will be regularly updated. Ultimately, OSEO hopes that the group's work will lead to Tagsys or other companies developing new technologies. "By providing this funding," Chaton states, "OSEO is expecting to increase the competitiveness of SMEs and laboratories, and allow them to gain market shares, thanks to the implementation and launching of new products."