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A Broader Definition of RFID

BLE promises to blur the line between Bluetooth and radio frequency identification.
By Jonathan Collins
Apr 01, 2009—To many, RFID signifies a technology employed to tag and track assets or goods within a facility or through a supply chain. But others, including RFID Journal and ABI Research, believe that definition is too narrow. In its broadest definition, RFID encompasses any system that uses radio frequency to identify an object. To that end, both companies regularly follow and report on contactless payment systems, Near Field Communication (NFC) technology and sensor networks.

Even so, some wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth, have remained either outside or on the periphery of the RFID market. While Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that enables a device to be uniquely recognized, its primary application so far has been to connect mobile phones to wireless headsets. It will also be included in more than half of the billion or so mobile handsets that will be shipped this year.

But later this year, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), a new short-range wireless technology, will be specified as a standard, and it promises to blur the line between Bluetooth and RFID. BLE will be built into the next generation of Bluetooth transceivers at very little additional cost. That will turn new Bluetooth-enabled mobile handsets into devices capable of collecting data from ultra-low-power BLE sensors, such as those used to track temperature and humidity, and tools that monitor the condition of machines. BLE will also allow mobile handsets to be configured as gateways to the Internet, so that data can be delivered automatically to online applications.

The combination of functionality, low cost and pervasive adoption will make BLE handsets an attractive option for many monitoring systems that are currently the target for RFID technologies. The first applications developed for BLE devices, which will start appearing next year, will be geared toward the fitness and well-being industry—in particular, the growing market for ultra-low-power devices to monitor sports performance metrics, such as heart rates. But further out, we'll see applications designed for other industries, including transportation and logistics.

A truck driver, for example, could use a BLE-enabled mobile handset to monitor sensor data from within a shipment and transfer that information to an online application. To accomplish this with existing RFID technology, you'd need to install an interrogator in the truck and connect it with a cellular modem or wait until the truck entered an RFID-enabled shipping yard.

As BLE-capable devices come to market over the next few years, the new technology will become pervasive at an astonishing speed, cutting the cost of deploying many monitoring systems. And that may mean the definition of RFID is about to get a little broader.

Jonathan Collins, former RFID Journal European editor, is now a principal analyst with ABI Research in London. His focus is on RFID and contactless commerce.
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