NXP to Unveil New UHF, HF Chips

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The new models include the Ucode I2C, a high-memory EPC chip that can be embedded into computers and other devices in order to activate features or diagnose errors, and the Icode ILT, a high-frequency IC designed for high-volume, fast tag reading.

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NXP Semiconductors is introducing four new passive RFID integrated circuits—the Ucode I²C, G2iM and G2iM+ ultra-high-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 chips and the Icode ILT high-frequency (HF) chip—that the company says will enable RFID tag manufacturers to offer end users new applications and capabilities. The company plans to showcase the new chips next week at RFID Journal LIVE! 2011, being held on Apr. 12-14, in Orlando, Fla.

The Ucode I²C has 3,328 bits of user memory—much greater than the 640 bits in the G2iM chips NXP is also introducing. But its key feature is a serial interface allowing it to be linked to a microprocessor, says Victor Vega, NXP’s marketing director for RFID solutions. The inter-integrated circuit, or I²C, interface is a technology that Royal Philips Electronics developed more than 30 years ago, and which is now used widely in electronics (Philips spun out its semiconductor division as NXP in 2006).


NXP’s Ucode I2C is an EPC Gen 2 chip with 3,328 bits of memory and an I2C interface.

This interface opens the door to new applications for EPC tags using NXP chips, Vega says, such as theft deterrence, product firmware upgrades and malfunction diagnosis. The chips could also be utilized as an EPC interface with active or semi-active sensor tags, which could track temperature, humidity, gas or pH levels for cold chain applications.

The Ucode I²C functions as a standard passive EPC Gen 2 chip. Its memory is segmented into a 128-bit Electronic Product Code (EPC), a 96-bit unique Tag Identifier (TID)—which includes a 48-bit serial number—and 3,328 bits of user memory. Each memory segment can be written to, read and password-protected using an EPC Gen 2 RFID reader. But the chip can also collect data from and send information to a microprocessor, via its serial connection.

If embedded into a computer, a tablet or a cell phone, the chip could be used as a gateway to that device’s main hard drive or processor. At the point of manufacture, the device could be set so as not to power up until a setting was changed in the Ucode chip. So in addition to being utilized as a means of automatically and uniquely identifying each device on, say, a pallet moving through the supply chain, the chip could also deter theft by making that device unusable. Once the device was received at a retail store or a distribution point, an RFID reader could be employed to change its setting so that it could be powered on.

At that point, the retailer could also use the chip’s I²C interface to send firmware upgrades to the device’s central processor before it was sold. What’s more, the store could use the chip to commission and personalize the device.

“Say you purchase a tablet for your mom for her birthday,” Vega explains, “and you know that she’s not very computer-savvy, but she loves classical music. You could request that the tablet be pre-loaded with classical music or videos. And you could also have a special message loaded onto the device, so that when it is first powered on, it could say ‘Happy Birthday, Mom’—and if she loves French, you could have it set to convey that message in French, or the device could be set to operate in French.”

The retailer could configure all of these settings through the RFID interface, and the device could also be registered to the buyer. Furthermore, the Ucode I²C chip could be configured to collect any error logs that the device generates. That way, if the device malfunctions and will no longer power up, its manufacturer or repair center could collect its serial number, along with the error log, from the chip’s memory without having to disassemble it.

When integrated into a passive or semi-passive sensor, the chip could be used to create UHF EPC Gen 2-compliant tags that can be utilized for supply chain tracking, as well as for environmental monitoring.

Another possible application would be in smart shelves, Vega says. “Say a retailer wants to put a television monitor on special, but for only a short period of time,” he states. “The Ucode I²C could be integrated with a microprocessor and an electronic display, all of which could be built into a shelf in the store. A reader mounted nearby could send a command to the chip to change the price, but only from 1 pm to 2 pm. The microprocessor would collect this, and the display would show that price, but only during that period.” This could also protect the retailer from having to honor a lower price physically marked on a product, even if the sale has already ended.

Some of NXP’s other UHF chips, such as the G2iL+ (see New NXP RFID Chips Bring Multiple Functions to Item-Level Tagging) and the new G2iM+, also have input/output capabilities enabling them to communicate with a microprocessor. But these chips, Vega notes, employ a single wire connection to a microcontroller, which does not allow for the ability to easily filter and control what information is shared between the tag and the microprocessor, nor for bidirectional communication between the chip and the microcontroller. In other words, if a tag based on a G2iL+ chip were embedded in a laptop that suffered a malfunction, thereby resulting in an error log, the microcontroller could not send that log to the tag’s memory. But with an I2C-based tag, it could, because the I2C bus allows information to flow both into and out of the microcontroller and the RFID tag.

G2iM/G2iM+


The G2iM and G2iM+ chip are higher-memory versions of NXP’s Ucode G2iL and G2iL+ chips, announced a year ago. The G2iL and G2iL+ chips are designed for EPC Gen 2 UHF tags that are low-cost, low-memory and used in ultra-high-volume RFID applications, such as tracking apparel or consumer packaged goods. Both chip models could also be used in tags for tracking products in the supply chain—especially in cases in which an end user wants to save extra data to tag memory. But these chips were also designed for applications in which tags are associated for a long period with products or parts, and are used to maintain a history of their use. For example, an RFID tag attached to an engine component could be utilized to maintain a repair history, or to store information about its configuration or use.

Both the G2iM and the G2iM+ chips have 128 bits of EPC memory, 640 bits of user memory and 96 bits of TID memory. In the G2iM+ version, the user memory can be segmented into up to three parts, two of which can be password-protected. Moreover, an end user can elect to have one of these segments accessible via a shared password, and the other only by that particular end user. This would allow secure and controlled information sharing among supply chain partners.

The G2iM+ chip, in addition to the functions required by the EPC Gen 2 standard, has several optional features, including a tamper notification and a switch that reduces the tag’s read range to 20 centimeters (7.9 inches)—a feature that retailers might choose to employ, for instance, in order to reduce the read range of tags left attached to products past the point of sale. Leaving a tag operable (albeit with reduced read range) would enable it to be used again if the product were returned or submitted for repair, as it would allow for easy identification, as well as authenticate the purchase. This chip also comes with a lead allowing it to be attached to a battery, in order to extend read range, along with a single wire that can be connected to a microprocessor, as noted above.

ICODE ILT


The Icode ILT chip is made for HF passive tags, and is compliant with the ISO 18000-3 Mode 3 (3M3) standard, which describes the air-interface protocol and data structure to be used between HF tags and interrogators. The chip is designed for reading large numbers of densely packed HF tags simultaneously. NXP indicates it is the first chipmaker to introduce a chip conforming to that standard. Reader manufacturers will now be able to encode to and read ISO 18000-3M3 tags using a firmware upgrade to a reader compliant with the ISO 18000-6c/EPC Gen 2 standard.

EPCglobal is currently working to ratify its own HF specification—to be called the HF Gen 2 EPC standard—for passive tags, and it has been working with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to harmonize this standard with ISO 18000-3M3. It’s important for EPC tags to comply with ISO standards, says Sue Hutchinson, GS1 US‘s director of portfolio strategy, just as the UHF EPC Gen 2 standard is harmonized with the ISO 18000-6c standard. She notes that a key element of the ISO 18000-3M3 standard and candidate HF Gen 2 EPC standard is that they use the same data structure and design set as the ISO 18000-6c/Gen 2 EPC UHF standards, which means Gen 3 RFID interrogators will be able to read and encode these HF tags, as well as UHF tags, thereby saving infrastructure costs during deployment.

The new Icode ILT chip supports an anti-collision function enabling it to read up to 700 tags at a time (whereas only about 60 tags made with NXP’s SLIx chip, which is compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, can be read at once), even when the tags are in close proximity. What’s more, this can be accomplished at a fast data rate—the forward link is 26.7 to 100 kilobits per second, and the return link is 53 to 848 kilobits per second. NXP’s older HF tags, based on the ISO 15693 standard, have a forward link of up to 26.5 kilobits per second and a return link of up to only 53 kilobits per second.

The chip supports password protection, which locks the data stored on the chip unless the reader presents a valid password, and a bit that can be turned on or off to signify tag status. This bit could be employed in a retail environment in which RFID readers are used at doorways to deter theft. At the point of sale, the bit would be set to indicate that an item was sold, and any goods removed from the store without that setting would thus trigger alarms.

The chip is also being targeted to the health-care industry, in which it will be initially used. ClearCount, which manufactures an RFID-based system for tracking surgical sponges, reports that it plans to migrate to tags using the Icode ILT chip (though it has not disclosed the names of the vendors from which it intends to purchase the complete tags). ClearCount currently uses tags made by Texas Instruments and carrying chips compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, Vega says, but will migrate to the ISO 18000-3M3 standard through reader firmware upgrades.

While ClearCount will not need to read hundreds of surgical sponges at once, Vega notes, it does need to interrogate HF tags in close proximity to each other. The ILT, he says, will provide superior reading performance in those situations.

Another potential application for the chip is in file-tracking systems, wherein tightly packed, RFID-tagged documents and folders must be read. NXP says it is also well suited for tracking pharmaceuticals, using an electronic-pedigree system, or for authenticating high-value products or those prone to counterfeiting.

The Icode ILT has a 96-bit TID and can hold an EPC of up to 240 bits. A higher-memory version, known as the ICODE ILT-M, will also be made available, with a 96-bit TID, up to 240 bits of EPC memory and 512 bits of user memory.

NXP is currently shipping samples of the G2iM, G2iM+ and UCODE I2C chips to select partners, and expects to make them widely available in the second and third quarter of 2011, respectively. The firm currently has engineering samples of the ICODE ILT, and plans to make the final product available by the end of this year. The company is not releasing pricing information.