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RFID Sensors: From Battlefield Intelligence To Consumer Protection

The U.S. military is funding the development of low-cost RFID sensors to gather information about battlefield conditions. The same technology could one day tell you when food is spoiled or tainted.
Aug 12, 2002—Aug. 12, 2002 - Last week’s feature described work being done by Intel and UC Berkeley to develop sensors that can form ad hoc networks (see Sensors to Network the World). Sensor nets will have a role to play in linking the digital and physical worlds, but they will always be more expensive than RFID tags, because they require an operating system, database, protocols, memory and a battery.

The military, which has already deployed sensor nets in Afghanistan, is also looking into low-cost sensors that would be much smaller, simpler and cheaper than sensor nets. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense MicroElectronics Activity (DMEA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) want to jumpstart research and development of low-cost sensors.

Last October, DMEA and DARPA awarded a multi-year contract to startup Alien Technology, North Dakota State University and University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The contract could be worth as much as $120 million over four years, and it could put those two universities at the forefront of the new nanosensor industry.

The aim is to develop an ultra-low-power battlefield sensor communication system, which will use low-power miniature sensors to identify biological and chemical agents and monitor the physical battlefield environment, as well as the physical condition of soldiers. The data will be sent to ultra-sensitive radio receivers capable of detecting signals weaker than one watt under poor conditions. And it will be distributed to those who need the information using real-time distributed information technology.

Alien has figured out a way to mass-produce "NanoBlocks" – microchips that are not much bigger than a grain of pepper. Add an antenna and you have a low-cost RFID tag. The military wants to marry Alien’s NanoBlocks, using its patented fluidic self-assembly process, to tiny sensors or micro-electromechanical devices (MEMs) that could be dropped by the tens of thousands over a battlefield. They would be disguised to look like pebbles or seeds.

The sensors would be able to detect vibrations caused by a rumbling convoy, the presence of chemical and biological agents, or even the sound of enemy soldiers breathing using nano-microphones. One of the big issues, of course, is how to read the data from the RF sensors. The military will use ultra-sensitive radio frequency receivers on airplanes or even satellites. Today, most passive RFID tags (those without a battery) can be read from, at most, a few meters away. But the military already has advanced antenna technology that is far more sensitive than anything that is available commercially.

"They have filtering mechanisms that are so unique they can hear things that no one else can hear," says someone familiar with the military’s research. "The signal is so small it fades into the white noise of the heat radiating off the earth. One military person told me, `We can hear a gnat fart’."

The U.S. military’s interest in the technology intensified after Sept. 11. One concern is that a single terrorist with a syringe could disable an entire battleship by injecting a highly infectious disease into the food of a single soldier. "One of the biggest problems the military sees right now is not [an enemy with] shiny new bombs," says Alien CEO Jeff Jacobsen. "They order food from companies like Kraft and Sara Lee, Procter & Gamble and Pepsi or Coke. They store it and then ship it, and they want to make sure that no one has tampered with it. The most advanced technology and superior vehicles on earth make no difference at all if the soldiers and sailors are to ill too operate them."

Disposable sensors that could be incorporated into food packaging to detect infectious diseases like listeriosis, botulism and e.coli have obvious commercial benefits. And tiny, inexpensive sensors could tell when minute increases in vibrations signal that a machine part is about to break. They could report when a fragile item has been jolted during shipping, when items that need refrigeration have been left out in the hot sun, or when your car engine needs a tune-up.

"This is going to be such an unbelievably huge field," says Henry Girolamo, who is heading up research at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., into how these sensors might be used by soldiers. "There’s so much going on in RFID for all kinds of things because the chips and deployment schemes are getting so much better."
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