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Undersea With RFID

Early adopters are exploring the benefits of tracking and monitoring underwater assets within one of the planet's most challenging environments.
By John Edwards
Apr 02, 2012—Approximately two-thirds of the Earth's surface is covered with water, forming one of the planet's last untapped frontiers for radio frequency identification deployment. Beneath the waves are assets typically associated with RFID solutions, such as oil and gas pipes and vehicles. There are also some unusual assets, such as geologic features, that represent a new, largely untouched area of RFID opportunity.

Underwater radio tracking and monitoring is now beginning to draw the attention of oil companies, military services, scientific researchers and aquariums. These underwater RFID visionaries are more or less at the same stage at which their terrestrial counterparts found themselves roughly a decade ago, when a relatively small group of trailblazers were showing the world how RFID could streamline asset tracking and provide enhanced insight to an array of important business processes. Similarly, underwater RFID proponents believe the technology—often deployed in conjunction with sensors—can improve the efficiency and safety of monitoring underwater equipment for maintenance and security purposes, as well as provide vital information to help preserve vulnerable environments.

Underwater radio tracking and monitoring is beginning to draw the attention of aquariums.

Yet, early adopters face challenges posed by an environment that many believe is more punishing than space. Corrosive salinity levels, intense water pressure (every foot underwater adds another 0.445 pound of pressure) and an almost endless variety of clinging marine life can all take a toll on tags, sensors and readers. With RFID vendors now addressing these issues, potential underwater adopters are becoming increasingly confident in both the technology and its long-term use.

Out of all identification technologies, RFID is the one best suited for submerged applications, says Michael Liard, the RFID director of technology research firm VDC Research, located in Natick, Mass. "You're not going to find bar codes underwater," he says, noting that sending a person or machine below the surface to read bar codes tends to be both impractical and expensive.

Aquarium visitors can identify passing fish tagged with RFID tracking tags.
Sensors alone can not be used to provide reliable underwater identification, Liard says. "You won't be able to automate that identification, that inventory control or other business processes or data-driven types of events through sensors," he states. "That could be the compelling value proposition [for underwater RFID]."

While underwater RFID has plenty of potential, Liard observes, there have only been a relatively modest number of adopters to date. "There's been lots of talk about using RFID, and RFID plus sensors, in underwater environments," he says, "but in terms of actual adoption, I can't really point to a cluster of activity in any vertical markets or industries at this point in time."
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