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What You Need to Know About RFID Sensors

By marrying sensors to RFID's ability to identify objects and communicate via radio waves, businesses can monitor the conditions of items and environments over long distances cost-effectively.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 16, 2012—As radio frequency identification technologies gain acceptance worldwide, many companies are realizing they want to go beyond just identifying an object or location—they want to know about conditions. The RFID industry has responded with a variety of solutions that automate the collection of data on humidity, light, sound, temperature, vibrations and more.

In general, RFID sensors fall into two broad categories. There are devices based on conventional RFID systems, in which a tag responds to a reader. The sensor can be incorporated into active or semipassive tags, such as those used for asset tracking, container security or personal identification.

Illustration: John Hull | iStockphoto

There are also more sophisticated wireless sensors (sometimes called motes) that can form "mesh," or "ad hoc," networks, in which data regarding an object's condition is passed from one sensor to another until it reaches a reader that serves as a gateway to a local- or wide-area network. The information is then forwarded to a back-end system for analysis or action. Mesh networks reduce installation costs by allowing a company to collect data from sensors using fewer dedicated readers than it would require with a conventional RFID system.

The cold-chain sector has been using RFID temperature tags to monitor perishables in the supply. Now, companies in other industries, including energy, construction, manufacturing and the arts, also are adopting RFID sensor solutions, as are researchers in remote areas.

Wireless sensors are a key solution for companies aiming to monitor conditions, especially if they want to deploy a greater number of sensors than they could affordably hard-wire, says Kelvin Chan, a wireless networking analyst at ABI Research. Wireless sensors can get you "more real-time information, more end points and more data—at a lower cost because you've removed the cabling cost."

RFID sensor technology has matured significantly over the past few years, but there's no single solution for all businesses. Here's what you need to know to decide if—and how—a wireless sensor solution could improve your company's operations. On the opposite page is a listing of vendors that provide sensor technology to different industries.
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