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The Technologist-in-Chief

Sanjay Sarma, head of research at the Auto-ID Center, is leading the effort to create an, open global network for tracking products using low-cost RFID tags.
Tags: Standards
Jul 29, 2002—July 29, 2002 - As a boy growing up in Delhi, Sanjay Sarma was fascinated with robots. His favorite toy, from the age of five, was a Mechano Set (similar to the Erector Set sold in the U.S.), which enabled him to build all kinds of contraptions. And as he got older, he would cobble together machines from whatever spare parts he could find. He dreamed of one day growing to design and build robots.

Sanjay Sarma
He hasn’t quite got there yet, but as the research director for the Auto-ID Center’s lab at MIT, he is playing a critical role in the development of technology that could be every bit as important as the Internet. While others preach the gospel of low-cost RFID, he works behind the scenes trying to make the vision a reality. And if the work he supervises is successful, RFID will become the bridge that links the real world and the digital world.

The Auto-ID Center is working on a global network that will make it possible to identify any object with a low-cost RFID tag anywhere in the world. Most articles refer to this system as simply a potential replacement for the bar code. But the implications go much farther than that. If the system works as envisioned, it will enable machines to gather information about the world around them and interact with it. Sarma’s beloved robots, for the first time, will be able to "see" everyday objects.

Some people, of course, think that this is impossible, or that it won’t happen for at least a decade. How does Sarma respond?

"We are developing technology, and we believe it is open and scalable," he says. "We believe that most of the pieces are there, and we are close to getting the missing pieces in place. The issue then becomes one of adoption."

Sarma sees market forces as playing a critical role going forward. Unless suppliers invest in equipment so they have the capacity to produce billions of chips for RFID tags, they can’t produce enough chips to get the cost down. And if the cost doesn’t come down, there won’t be orders from customers. "If there is a significant corporate demand, it can be made to happen," Sarma says. "But making it happen is beyond my expertise. All I can say is we have a good system here, and industry has to drive it."

The technological hurdles that remain involve improving the system, rather than making parts of it work. For instance, if tags and readers can be made more cheaply, that will speed adoption. And software has to be enhanced to compensate for faulty reads and some of the limitations of radio waves.

And the system will have to be adapted for individual situations. Reading bottles of liquid shampoo on a shelf may require a different kind of antenna than reading packages of paper towels. "There are a lot of hardcore deployment issues that need to be addressed," Sarma says. "It’s not a one-size fits all system. It needs to be engineered. But these challenges can be addressed."
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