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Taking RFID Beyond Identification

Prof. Ted Selker and his Context Aware Computing Group at MIT are using RFID to power sensors, transmitters and other microelectronic devices.
Dec 09, 2002—Dec. 9, 2002 - Ted Selker describes himself as a "general purpose inventor." In fact, he's one of those people who is constantly imaging how things could be different, better. He talks fast and thoughts and new ideas often bump into each other in mid-sentence. The former head of user systems research at IBM is now an associate professor at MIT's famed Media Lab. And his Context Aware Computing group is taking RFID beyond identification. His ideas could influence everything from the way you drive to the way you cook.

MIT's Selker
There are a number of professors within the Media Lab exploring applications that involve RFID. Selker's approach is unusual in that his focus is not on identifying items. Instead, his central idea is that batteries are often a needless expense and burden. Microelectronic devices are getting so efficient in their use of power that they can run off of energy sent through the air. In other words, the same technology used to power RFID microchips can be used to run microsensors, warning lights, whistles, and many other low-energy devices. It's all part of the ongoing trend towards developing smart objects.

"We started off with just saying we could make power travel through the air," Selker says. "The challenge was: Can you make a watch that runs off of ambient power in the air? Can you make noise? Light? A transmitter? A sensor?"

The students responded. They created a watch that could run on radio waves from an FM radio station broadcasting nearby. The team began looking for applications for the technology. The first idea was a sensor that would tell you when it was time to water the plants. The students put probes in the dirt, and the water in the dirt conducted electricity, transmitting a signal to a blinking light. (The operation was a success, but the plant died.)

Selker and his students began using an 802.11b (Wi-Fi) transmitter to send RF energy to an RFID tag. Wi-Fi is a standard for transmitting 11 megabits of data per second over a wireless local area network. It uses the 2.4 GHz band. Selker's RFID tags, however, don't just reflect the signal back to the reader to identify an item. They gather the energy -- this is sometimes called energy harvesting -- and store it in a diode, so it can be used to power a microelectronic device.

The one limitation is distance. The RFID tags can only gather enough energy from the transmitter if they are within one to two meters -- that is, within about five or six feet. That means the technology, at least at this point, can only be used where there are electronic devices that don't use a lot of power in a defined space. While driving to work one day, Selker hit on the perfect place to use this technology -- the car.
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