National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art Adopts Active-Passive RFID Solution

By Claire Swedberg

The RFID system, provided by EPC Solutions Taiwan, is designed so that the museum can view the real-time location of artwork on display or being moved within its warehouse.

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The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art (NTMOFA) has launched a hybrid passive and active radio frequency identification system to manage the movements of its artwork and visitors into and out of its warehouse, and to identify the locations of works of art at one its 24 exhibit halls. The solution, provided by EPC Solutions Taiwan, includes passive and active RFID-enabled carts, fixed passive RFID portals at the warehouse egresses, passive tags on art and Futaba Electronics Taiwan software to manage the collected read data. According to T.H. Liu, EPC Solutions Taiwan’s president, the system—which was taken live this summer—also includes active readers in the warehouse area to read and identify the locations of badged personnel and RFID reading carts that transport artwork.

With a main building spanning 37,953 square meters (408,520 square feet) and an outdoor sculpture park covering 102,000 square meters (1.1 million square feet), the NTMOFA claims to be Asia’s physically largest art museum. The museum contains approximately 20,000 works of art from around the world, either on display or in storage. The building includes three floors, as well as a basement measuring 14,600 square meters (157,150 square feet), allocated for the exhibits.

The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art has launched a hybrid passive and active RFID solution to manage the movements of its artwork and visitors into and out of its warehouse.

To ensure that the artwork in storage or on display within the exhibits does not end up missing, the museum had been using an RFID-based system since 2006 consisting of proprietary 433 MHz active RFID tags that staff members wore when entering the warehouse (to track their movements), and the same 433 MHz active tags attached to high-value artwork on display in the exhibit halls. RFID readers captured the tags’ ID numbers, and the museum’s software determined if a piece of art was moving, while also creating a map of workers’ routes within the warehouse, to ensure that they did not remove a piece of art from the facility without authorization.

Tagging all of the artwork was impossible, however, due to the active tags’ size—5 centimeters by 10 centimeters (2 inches by 3.9 inches)—and cost (about US$25 per tag), and the tags used on the art tended to provide false alerts, indicating a piece of art was being moved when, in fact, it was not. The active tags were equipped with built-in motion sensors that often triggered the false alarms themselves. What’s more, the solution did not provide location data regarding works of art in transit on wheeled carts between the warehouse and the exhibition halls.

EPC Solutions Taiwan provided a system that resolved these issues, by attaching an EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) passive tag to each of the 20,000 pieces of art within its collection. The deployment uses Alien Technology ALN-9654 tags for non-metallic art and EPC Solutions tags for metal sculptures. EPC Solutions’ FlexAnt reader antennas, in the form of coaxial cables, were installed behind the walls on which the artwork was exhibited, thereby providing real-time read data without requiring active RFID tags on the art pieces.

The company affixed a Microprogram MP-1303 active 900 MHz RFID tag to each transporting cart, in order to transmit location data related to that cart as it moves throughout the building. It also equipped each cart with a passive RFID reader and a FlexAnt antenna to interrogate the tags of any artwork loaded onto it. In order to track each cart’s active tag, the museum then installed around 15 Alien ALR-9900+ EPC Gen 2 RFID readers to interrogate the tags on the carts as they were moved throughout an expanded warehouse area, as well as between the warehouse and exhibit halls.

EPC Solutions set up 16 fixed ALR-9900+ reader portals at the warehouse egresses and throughout the facility, and installed Futaba Electronics software on the museum’s back-end system to manage the read data, in order to determine when an item passed from one location to another. In addition, the museum mounted a camera at each reader portal. If the Futaba software alerts management that an item is being removed, the camera provides a video image of the artwork being moved through that portal. Employees also utilize five ATID AT-870 handheld readers to search for a specific object, or to conduct spot checks of the artwork.

Additionally, EPC Solutions Taiwan developed a new dual-band 900 MHz and 125 KHz active RFID system for tracking the locations of visitors or personnel within the warehouse. Every visitor receives a badge containing an embedded Microprogram Activ Personnel Tag. A 125 kHz low-frequency (LF) exciter, also manufactured by Microprogram, transmits a signal to the badges (as well as to the tagged carts) to awaken them—the read range is approximately 10 meters (33 feet)—after which they transmit their response to the nearest of the 16 Microprogram RFID receivers installed throughout the warehouse. EPC Solutions installed 56 exciters in each room within the warehouse, as well as along the tunnel connecting the warehouse to the exhibition area.

As items are moved, they are placed in a cart, the reader of which identifies those objects. The reader works in conjunction with a cable antenna that EPC Solutions developed and installed on the cart to limit the read range, thereby ensuring that only the tagged items on the cart itself are read. The interrogator then forwards the collected read data to the museum’s back-end system via a Wi-Fi connection. Once the cart passes one of the exciters inside the warehouse, its active tag transmits its ID number, thus providing the software with location information that is linked to the UHF RFID read data from the cart’s onboard reader. In that way, the software can provide real-time details indicating each piece’s exact position.

All of the existing 433 MHz active readers are being replaced. To date, EPC Solutions has installed a single passive ALR-9900+ 902 to 928 MHz reader in one of the museum’s 24 exhibition halls. This system also employs a FlexAnt cable antenna to provide highly granular location data without requiring the use of active tags.

“It looks like a normal coaxial cable,” Liu says. The cable is soft, with an extendable length that can be dictated by use case. It functions as a UHF antenna, he adds, and is designed to emit an electromagnetic wave that surrounds the surface of the cable—which measures 20 to 30 meters (66 to 98 feet) in length or more. The FlexAnt, for which EPC Solutions Taiwan has a patent, has been commercially available and used in a variety of applications for more than a year, Liu notes.

The cable is installed along the length of a display wall, typically behind that wall (or under an exhibit table), and is thus invisible. All tags within the electromagnetic coverage area can then be read in real time, at a distance of up to about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet). “It can be installed in any environment,” Liu states, “including one containing metal.” The company is currently marketing this technology for other applications as well, including the management of tags in such areas as data centers.

In the near future, Liu reports, the museum plans to install additional Alien readers to provide coverage for all of the artwork at its 23 other exhibition halls. Beginning next month, the NTMOFA’s Art Bank, Taiwan program will begin loaning out artwork to companies or other private interests, with the goal of promoting local Taiwanese artists. The contemporary Taiwanese art pieces (initially several hundred) will be fitted with EPC Gen 2 RFID tags, and the museum expects that staff members will use the handhelds to interrogate those tags prior to loaning the artwork to the recipients. In that way, the museum can create an electronic record of when the art was loaned, to whom and when it was returned.

“We feel more comfortable with this new installation” than with the prior solely active RFID system, says J.G. Chang, an officer at the NTMOFA.