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What You Need to Know About Overhead RFID Readers

These devices, which are mounted on or installed in ceilings, can track the location of moving assets or inventory in large areas.
By Bob Violino
Apr 25, 2014

In 2008, startup Mojix's STAR (Space Time Array Reader) system was voted best new product at RFID Journal LIVE!, RFID Journal's annual conference and exhibition (see Mojix Wins First-Ever 'Best in Show' Award at RFID Journal LIVE! 2008 and The Brightest Star). The system, which is installed on or in ceilings, was designed to read EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency tags in very large areas (an entire warehouse, for example), from great distances (hundreds of feet) and precisely identify the locations of tagged pallets, cases or items.

In 2012, Mojix introduced its next-generation STAR 3000 system. Since then, several other RFID providers have entered the so-called "overhead" reader arena. Checkpoint Systems, a provider of electronic article surveillance solutions, launched its Overhead EAS Solution in 2011, and a new version, Overhead 2.0, in 2013. Sekura, which develops security solutions for retailers, jumped into the market in 2012 with its Vertic RFID Overhead System. Impinj, which makes chips for handheld readers, announced its overhead solution, the Speedway xArray system, in 2013 (the xArray won the award for best new product at last year's RFID Journal LIVE!—see Best in Show: RFID Gets xArray Vision).

Illustration: iStockphoto
Given the wide variety of fixed and handheld RFID readers available—and the myriad solutions developed to use these devices—when and why should a company consider an overhead reader? Are these readers designed for specific industries or applications? What unique features do they offer? How about cost? These are just a few of the questions companies that have deployed—or are planning to deploy—RFID have been asking.

Let's examine these issues, but first, a couple of basics. All the overhead readers are designed to read passive EPC Gen 2 tags. Each overhead employs a phased array (also called antenna array), which divides a large area into separate read zones.

"Arrays are dynamic antenna systems using multiple radiating antenna elements that coordinate to create RF fields with a unique size, shape and direction," says Tracy Hillstrom, senior product line manager at Impinj, a provider of both handheld and overhead RFID readers. "The array can be driven to change the read field over time, so it can be very responsive to the application requirements and environment. Most traditional antennas use a single antenna element, so you don't get the diversity of read fields that are possible with an array."

"An overhead RFID array is often considered when identifying the number, location and movement of assets within a space is necessary," says Robert Zielinski, director of commercial marketing at CDO Technologies, a systems integrator, in Dayton, Ohio. "The benefit of an overhead system is that it automatically collects location data to determine travel; a traditional fixed reader is intended to capture data at a specific point and a handheld solution requires human involvement."

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