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RFID's Urge to Converge

Efforts are afoot to merge passive and active RFID hardware with other wireless protocols and technology such as Wi-Fi, ZigBee and sensors. Will this marriage work?
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 23, 2006—Radio frequency identification is no longer just about identifying things and people. It's also about locating them, monitoring their environment and making sure they're safe. As wireless devices get more sophisticated and wireless networks grow larger and more nimble, RFID tags are being used with a range of other sensors, enabling end users to know not only what things are, but also where and how they are. As they converge with other technologies, RFID devices are being used to communicate not only ID numbers or other static data, but also dynamic, changing data supplied by sensors. And RFID devices aren't always using air-interface protocols created specifically for RFID. Instead, they may be using other air-interface protocols designed for wireless networks, such as Wi-Fi and ZigBee.

Wireless sensor networks (WSNs) are made up of groups of small devices, called nodes or motes (basically, very small nodes), that have three jobs: sense, compute and communicate. To achieve these functions, each device contains a battery, a radio transceiver (for communication), one or more sensors (to measure such things as temperature, humidity or light) and a microprocessor (to store data and control the sensor or sensors attached to the apparatus). The nodes in a WSN communicate with each other over peer-to-peer communication scheme by sending and receiving data to any nodes within their communication range. This enables the nodes to form mesh, or ad hoc, networks that can self-organize. Typical RFID networks, by contrast, include RFID tags, or sensors, that communicate directly to a single interrogator.

The convergence of RFID with ZigBee and Wi-Fi networks is changing the basic notions of what makes an RFID device. All devices in a wireless sensor network, whether ZigBee-compliant sensors, Wi-Fi location tags or sensor pods linked by a nonstandard wireless protocol, have some type of identification number, such as a media access control (MAC) address—the unique identifier built in to computer Ethernet cards and other types of networking equipment. This number can be used to identify and locate the object to which the sensor is associated, making it a de-facto RFID device. Cisco Systems offers a Wireless Location Appliance utilizing MAC numbers to locate assets within defined areas in which Cisco Wi-Fi access points are installed.

It's not likely that this convergence will change the face of all RFID applications. Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, an organization developing communication standards for wireless devices, says that for identifying and tracking products in the retail supply chain, for example, passive (batteryless) RFID tags can't be beat. And many companies have already invested millions in RFID technology compliant with EPCglobal and ISO standards, using UHF and HF frequency bands.

To track the location of assets, however, a real-time location system (RTLS) typically uses active (battery-powered) RFID tags, measuring the distance between a tag's location and an access point or interrogator (reader) to determine an asset's location. This is where Heile sees RFID initially converging with other sensor networks.

Rob Conant, cofounder and vice president of marketing and business development for Dust Networks, a Hayward, Calif., provider of mesh network automation and monitoring systems, agrees. He says location will just be one more thing WSNs are used to sense, along with such environmental factors as temperature or vibration. "What people call 'active RFID networks' have a lot of overlap with WSNs," he says.
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