Singapore Airport, Airlines Piloting Handheld RFID Reader

By Claire Swedberg

Koamtac's UHF RFID module can be attached to a barcode scanner or stand alone as a Bluetooth-connected device with a mobile phone that can be charged, along with the phone, on a single charging device.

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Numerous airlines are deploying or piloting a UHF RFID-enabled handheld device that can be used with a smartphone and then be charged with that phone on a single charging device. The compact reader, provided by Koamtac, is intended to allow airlines to track baggage handling and logistics in order to understand where their tagged luggage or parcels are as they are checked in, loaded onto aircraft and then unloaded. The device is currently in use by parcel handlers at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

To meet the growing demand for UHF readers by airlines, as well as in logistics environments, the company plans to release a Ring and Glove scanner this fall that will fit over two fingers and can be worn like a glove. Koamtac has develop UHF RFID technology into its existing KBC 470 barcode scanner so that companies whose personnel scan barcodes (such as warehouse workers, logistics providers and baggage handlers) can add UHF functionality without having to upgrade the entire technology.

Changi Airport

Engineer and inventor Hanjin Lee founded Koamtac to provide barcode solutions in 2002. Businesses such as courier delivery firms are using the company’s barcode scanners so that delivery personnel and those loading vehicles can quickly scan barcodes as parcels are handled or delivered to customers.

As the demand for visibility into logistics and inventory management has evolved, with more passive HF and UHF RFID-based tracking solutions, the company opted to provide RFID reading functionality as well. Beginning in 2010, the firm began RFID development centered around reader modules that could be affordable and operate with Android-, iOS-, MacOS-, Windows- or Tizen-based systems. The resulting products include an HF 13.56 MHz reader compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, 0.5-watt and 1-watt UHF readers, and NFC-based KDC470 readers compliant with the ISO 14443 standard. The UHF version was released approximately three years ago.

The first version of the HF reader, Lee says, was built directly into the company’s barcode scanner, which is enclosed in a case that holds a smartphone or tablet. HF and UHF readers are now modular units, so a company using the KDC470 barcode scanners can simply add the module and upgrade the firmware. The 1-watt version of the RFID reading and barcode scanning unit comes with a pistol grip and, when not in use, can be placed in a charging cradle that can charge a barcode scanner and an RFID reader, as well as a smartphone or tablet, simultaneously.

“RFID wasn’t a big market at first,” Lee says, “but we have been seeing increasing demand,” especially from airlines as they seek to meet the IATA Resolution 753 mandate for applying UHF RFID tags so that they can be read in airports on each piece of passenger baggage. Several airlines around the world have been piloting or adopting RFID technology since the resolution was first announced in 2018. Beyond airline baggage handling, he adds, “Our biggest use cases are inventory and asset management.” Companies are opting to upgrade their barcode scanners to enable RFID reading for situation in which RFID-tagged assets or products move through their facilities.

The reader can be simply attached to an existing barcode scanner, after which it can be used with a smartphone or tablet. The reader captures tag ID numbers typically from a range of about 10 meters (32.8 feet), then forwards the unique ID to a server via a Bluetooth connection to the tablet or phone. Usually, an app on the device enables it to store and manage the collected read data. The Singapore airport is using such devices to track parcels as they are transferred from and onto planes by service providers. The airport has been using the technology for approximately one year for both inbound and outbound parcels.

With the handheld reader, workers can capture the tag ID linked to each parcel as it is loaded onto or offloaded from a carrier plane. When the reader captures the tag data, that information is forwarded to a database in which the cargo owner can view the parcel’s status in real time. “We have been deploying a good quantity of readers” to solution providers for use in airports, Lee reports.

Koamtac’s Hanjin Lee

Koamtac also offers its readers to apparel stores for inventory-management purposes. “There are a lot of portable readers on the market,” Lee states, adding that the Koamtac version is the only one that offers USB as well as a Bluetooth connection to a phone or tablet, and that can be charged with the paired device simultaneously. In addition to the reader, Koamtac offers a software developers kit to collect tag-read data and transmit it to a user’s application.

“We can work with any application,” Lee says. “They can use what we have or use their own and work with that as well.” He adds that the hybrid functionality allows both technologies—barcode scanning and RFID reading—to provide solutions where they are most effective. “Barcodes will be there forever,” he states, but UHF offers an alternative for applications for which speed is important, as well as automated records of what was identified at a specific time or place.

Although airlines around the world are deploying RFID, Lee says, Asian airports and airlines have made the greatest number of inquiries. “They are moving faster,” he states. The ring reader and ring barcode scanner are expected to be made available later this month for use by baggage handlers at airports and warehouses. According to Lee, the KDC180 Ring and Glove readers and barcode scanners will help free up hands for handlers who can simply move tagged items without pressing a trigger or holding a separate device.