ODIN Technologies Unveils End-to-End EPC Gen 2 Tracking for Supply Chains

By Beth Bacheldor

The new solution combines passive and active RFID, as well as satellite and cellular technologies, to track individual items packed in shipping containers as they traverse a supply chain.

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ODIN Technologies has announced a system that can continuously track item-level EPC Gen 2 tags within a shipping container, then communicate that data via satellite, cellular and active RFID, in order to provide organizations with end-to-end visibility of their shipments.

“Everybody talks about visibility end-to-end,” says Patrick Sweeney, ODIN Technologies’ CEO and president, “but there’s still this huge gap that exists—the point when a shipment leaves, to the point of its arrival.” The cause, he adds, has been the lack of a means to collect item-level tag reads and regularly share that information while shipments are en route.

The system, known as the SMART Container, includes a control unit (comparable in size to an average suitcase) that includes four lithium batteries, power management, sensor controls, an integrated computer, GPS and an external communications array (Iridium‘s low earth orbit satellite technology, cellular, and active RFID). The system also incorporates two of ODIN’s new so-called Blackbird Wings, each of which comes with an onboard EPC Gen 2 RFID interrogator, a proprietary antenna array and an “intelligent configurator” that tunes antenna power. Sensors that measure motion, sound and other characteristics can be added to the Smart Container as well. The control unit and wings are all contained in ruggedized enclosures, and the control units’ batteries have an average lifespan of approximately one year.

“This is ODIN Technologies’ biggest announcement yet,” Sweeney states. “We started development three years ago, and spent a lot of resources, money and time developing this.”

The Blackbird Wing units are being manufactured by Taiwan-based Microelectronics Technology Inc.. MTI Laboratory, an MTI subsidiary located in San Jose, Calif., helped design the reader.

What’s unique about the Blackbird Wing, Sweeney explains, is that it is so thin—3/4 inch thick, 4 inches wide and about 4 feet long—that it can easily fit into a small space, yet still provide the performance found in more bulky and expensive interrogators. The read range provided by two Blackbird Wings inside a container, he says, is approximately 150 meters (492 feet).

The control unit and wings can be affixed via magnets to the inside of a steel shipping container; the control unit attaches to the container’s ceiling, while the two wings adhere to the side walls. All three components are connected together via CAT-5 cabling. One SMART Container can be installed within a container in 60 seconds or less, according to Sweeney—a feat he demonstrated at RFID Journal LIVE! 2009, being held this week in Orlando, Fla. ODIN Technologies unveiled its SMART Container yesterday at the event, and the new product is one of 10 finalists in the Best in Show categroy of this year’s RFID Journal Awards, taking place at the conference.

The active RFID component supports both 433 MHz tags compliant with the ISO 18000-7 standard, and 2.4 GHz tags that employ an air-interface protocol compliant with the ANSI 371.1 real-time location system (RTLS) standard. The SMART Container control unit’s active RFID component would send the EPC Gen 2 tag reads to an active RFID tag installed within the container. That active tag would then communicate with active RFID interrogators in yards or depots that the shipping containers move into or out of.

For now, the control unit must be manually programmed to communicate via either active RFID, satellite or cellular technologies. According to Sweeney, ODIN Technologies is currently working on a second generation of the system that would first search for active RFID, then cellular and then satellite connectivity (the most expensive form of communications). The unit can be programmed to activate at intervals to transmit the passive tag reads culled from inside the container. GPS coordinates are regularly sent to the control unit, which are then sent back out during designated times configured into the unit, via the specified communications.

Although the SMART Container is new, Sweeney says the system has been tested for approximately 18 months by the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command‘s U.S. Naval Construction Force, known as Seabees. The Seabees construct bases, roadways and airstrips, as well as other construction projects supporting the military, and have been using the SMART Containers to track tools and equipment within mobile warehouses that are shipped around the United States from Gulfport, Miss.

In addition, ODIN Technologies is testing the SMART Container with an electronics manufacturer (which Sweeney is not at liberty to name) to track the contents of 400 tagged items in a shipping container. The container, which departed on Apr. 19 and is slated to arrive overseas on May 4, can be tracked at ODIN’s Web site.