RFID-enabled Vending Machine Dispenses Bottled Water

By Beth Bacheldor

The S2C AquaDuct employs RFID not only to dispense five-gallon jugs of water, but also to accept empties and process deposit refunds.

Las Vegas startup S2C Global Systems and Fort Wayne, Ind., systems integrator and contract manufacturer Northern Apex have codeveloped an RFID-enabled vending machine able to dispense five-gallon bottles of water. The S2C AquaDuct not only automatically dispenses the jugs, but also accepts empties and provides deposit refunds to customers who return them.

Measuring 16 feet long, 8 feet wide and 7 feet high, the machine can hold 345 five-gallon plastic water bottles. A built-in RFID antenna and interrogator automatically read each bottle's passive 13.56 MHz RFID tag. The tags comply with the ISO 15693 standard and can withstand numerous wash cycles, as well as extreme heat and pressure. According to Matt Foreman, sales and business development manager with Northern Apex, the tags are encased in plastic and affixed to the bottom center of each bottle.

The S2C AquaDuct dispenses five-gallon bottles of water fitted with 13.56 MHz passive RFID tags.

The vending machine allows customers to purchase bottles of water using their credit cards. The built-in RFID reader documents the purchase of a bottle by scanning the tag's unique ID number at the point of purchase. When a customer places an empty bottle onto a tray at the side of the S2C AquaDuct, the interrogator reads the tag's unique ID and communicates that number to the vending machine's internal computer system. The system then correlates the ID number with the purchasing transaction, either processing a deposit refund to the customer's credit card, or providing a credit toward the purchase of a refilled bottle.

To circumvent any potential interference caused by the metal used in the vending machine's construction, Northern Apex developed a custom-molded end piece to be mounted in the tray where empty returned bottles are placed. "The plastic, nylon-type material shields the [tag's] antenna from the metal," Foreman explains.

In addition, Northern Apex factored in the remote possibility that some people might store empty bottles outside during winter months in regions that could experience very frigid temperatures. While the tags can withstand temperatures as low as -25 degrees Fahrenheit, anything lower could inhibit their ability to be read. "So we had to include a warning, in print, on the bottom of the bottle," Foreman says.

RFID is already making vending machines more convenient, but the technology has thus far been primarily used to allow cashless, contactless payments. MasterCard, USA Technologies and the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., for example, teamed up last summer to RFID-enable 1,000 vending machines so thirsty customers could use PayPass contactless cards or key fobs to pay for beverages (see Philly To Get RFID-enabled Vending Machines).

According to Foreman, the S2C AquaDuct is designed to make it easier for customers to purchase, and later return, five-gallon bottles of purified water. In so doing, S2C Global hopes to reduce the amount of plastic, individual-sized water bottles that end up in landfills around the country.

In February of this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that more than 1 billion plastic water bottles end up in California trash annually (see The Real Cost of Bottled Water). "The RFID here [in the S2C AquaDuct] is really a convenience tool," says Foreman. "But the system has been given a thumbs-up by the green community because of all the plastic water bottles you see filling up the landfills."

S2C Global Systems has already installed several S2C AquaDuct machines in Canada—one in Surrey, British Columbia, and another in Montreal. Thus, it can now sell five-gallon jugs of water under its own private label, Cascadian Ice Water, bottled by Quebec company Amaro. S2C Global System has also announced plans to lease a site in Houston, Texas, where it would install one of its machines.

Earlier this month, S2C Global Systems unveiled its intention to open a plant to mass-produce the S2C AquaDuct in Dallas. This would allow the company to stay on track with its strategic plan to install the dispensing machines throughout Texas and Southern California. Down the line, Foreman says, it also plans to work with other producers and distributors of bottled water.