RFID Enables M2M and M2O

By Mark Roberti

While the technology offers great potential for machine-to-machine communication, its real value lies in machine-to-object communication.


Last week, an author and consultant at an IT research and analysis firm interviewed me about radio frequency identification’s role in machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. I think it’s worth sharing some of my thoughts with RFID Journal‘s readers.

Machine-to-machine is a broad term that covers technologies enabling devices, such as utility meters and vending machines, to communicate directly with other machines—or, more commonly, data-capture devices and computers. M2M systems employ wired or wireless connections, and often involve sensors to capture another machine’s status, such as the volume of liquid within a container, or the temperature of a shipment of pharmaceuticals.

There is a great deal of M2M communication currently in place. Cars equipped with the OnStar system, for instance, can sign up for a monthly Vehicle Diagnostic Report, whereby a car communicates engine performance data to a computer that then analyzes it and creates a report. In addition, there are industrial printers that communicate with their manufacturer, via the Internet, when inks need to be replenished, and there are vending machines that communicate sales and replenishment requirements via cell phone.

Presently, the vast majority of M2M communication is performed via the Internet if machines are wired or have Wi-Fi capability, and by cellular network if they are not connected online. RFID has the potential to greatly expand M2M communication, and to also create machine-to-object (M2O) communication, which will be vastly more important.

Near-Field Communication (NFC), a type of high-frequency RFID technology, was designed as a short-range M2M interface, a means by which consumer devices, such as cell phones, computers and home-audio equipment, could share information. But NFC is being used more broadly now for M2M communication. It can, for instance, be utilized in access-control systems to enable a person to unlock a door with an NFC-enabled cell phone. In Japan, moviegoers can download tickets to a cell phone, and then swipe their phone near an NFC-enabled turnstile in order to gain entry to the theater.

Active RFID-enabled sensors, whether they communicate directly with a reader or with each other in a mesh network, also hold great promise for M2M communication. There are already examples of companies using an RFID transponder linked to a device that senses the weight of parts bins and communicates when parts run low (see WhereNet Replenishes Parts). The military is employing RFID temperature and moisture sensors inside shipping containers to ensure that avionics components are not damaged by exposure to moisture (see Aircraft Parts Maker to Use EPC Tags to Track Moisture Exposure). And DHL has been tracking shipments of pharmaceuticals with RFID sensors that alert the company when temperature-sensitive drugs are exposed to unacceptable levels of heat or cold (see Best Use of RFID in a Service: A Prescription for Spoiled Drugs).

As exciting as these applications are, RFID’s biggest impact will be in low-cost tags that enable machines to communicate with objects. You could place a wireless sensor inside a container to monitor the level of liquid stored within. But it’s an expensive solution—involving a sensor, a means of communication (RFID transponder, cellular node or Wi-Fi transmitter) and a battery to power the device—so a company would only deploy such a system if it knew that the volume in the container was extremely important.

On the other hand, a firm could put passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) transponders inside a container at various levels. Since the liquid would interfere with the ability to read the tags, a company could determine liquid levels by ascertaining which tags can and can not be read. This is potentially a much less expensive solution.

Low cost is the key to ubiquity. Computers and other machines can not see or communicate with the vast majority of objects in the world. Connecting a refrigerator, washing machine or printing press to the Internet allows for M2M communication. But you can’t put a Wi-Fi transmitter or a cell phone on every box of Tide detergent, bag of Granny Smith apples or Van Heusen shirt.

Low-cost RFID tags will, one day, be put on all of these things, enabling M2O communication. Shirts will communicate their location within a store, and computers will determine whether that location is the right one and alert staff members if it is not.

This change—enabling computers to see and understand what is happening in the real world—is enormous. Most people have yet to grasp it, seeing RFID as a more expensive alternative to bar codes. They don’t comprehend that when computers can automatically collect information regarding what is happening in the world, new insights and business strategies then become possible. And the companies that leverage these capabilities most effectively will be the big winners in the century ahead.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.