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RFID 2.0

Next-generation UHF systems promise to bring a new level of performance previously thought impossible.
By Mark Roberti
Apr 15, 2008— Radio frequency identification technology is about to enter a new phase, with capabilities that, until now, have been thought impossible to achieve. Two companies that are still in stealth mode—RF Controls and Mojix—have given RFID Journal an exclusive look at their ultrahigh-frequency systems. Each was developed with expertise from outside the RFID industry—RF Controls' from the U.S. military and Mojix's from NASA. And each takes advantage of the same sophisticated technology—beam-steerable phased-array antennas—though they apply it in different ways to yield distinctly different system characteristics. But both promise a new level of performance by providing a longer read range than previously possible, the ability to verify tags on cases in the middle of a pallet of RF-unfriendly products, and the ability to locate tags more precisely at dock doors, in warehouses and on store shelves. And both promise to lower the cost of deployment.

In addition, both systems are compliant with EPCglobal's second-generation UHF air interface protocol standard, and both operate within the regulatory limits for RF energy output established by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission. Neither company was willing to provide photographs of its system. But it's a sure bet that when these two companies go public, you'll be hearing a lot more about them, and they'll create quite a stir in the RFID industry.

RF Top Gun
RF Controls, based in St. Louis, was started by Graham Bloy and Thomas Ellinwood. Bloy, the company's chief technology officer, holds numerous patents in RF and related fields, and has done research and development in guidance, encryption and tracking systems, as well as in radar and satellite communications. Ellinwood, the company's CEO, was formerly general manager of Omar Tool and Machine, which makes components and systems for military aircraft and aerospace applications. He left Omar to enter the consumer packaged goods industry, where, in 1995, he orchestrated the spin-off of Pillsbury's $100 million Van de Kamp's seafood line and built it into a $500 million business.

Nearly four years ago, one of Bloy's companies was working with Ellinwood on a military project that required RF devices to be located in three-dimensional space. Ellinwood, well aware of the RFID tagging initiatives launched by Wal-Mart through his consumer goods exposure, realized that the RF issues Bloy was trying to address—pinpointing a signal in 3-D space—would have huge implications in the commercial sector.

The ability to accurately locate a tag in 3-D could solve many problems associated with conventional RFID systems, which simply capture the serial number of a tag in a read zone. Such a system would allow a company to determine, for example, whether a tag was on a product at dock door 2 rather than dock door 1 or 3, or high on a warehouse rack as opposed to low, or entering a facility rather than leaving it. The ability to identify the precise locations of tags in systems with greater read ranges also is important, because simply knowing a tag is present in a large area is not enough to enable a company to make intelligent business decisions about the location or movement of tagged items.

Bloy was unfamiliar with commercial passive RFID tags and asked why anyone would want to track one—let alone in 3-D. "Tom said to me, 'Because there's a lot of money to be made if we can do it,'" Bloy says. "And that caught my interest."

The answer to pinpointing a tag's location in 3-D was to use beam-steerable phased-array antennas, a technology developed by the U.S. military for secure radio-frequency communications and other applications. But applying the military's beam-steerable phased-array antennas approach to RFID to pinpoint a tag's location in a 3-D space wouldn't be easy. These antenna systems, which use a low-powered, focused and electronically steerable beam of RF energy to sweep an area, similar to the way an image is rasterized for display on a computer screen, are extremely expensive—about $250,000 per unit. "That obviously wasn't viable for an RFID system, so the challenge was to bring the cost down dramatically," Bloy says. "With a few smart RF engineers, sophisticated development resources and a lot of hard work over several years, and with millions of dollars invested, we've been able to do that."
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