Startup SensThys Teams With Alien to Provide PoE+ RFID Mesh

By Claire Swedberg

The new readers, known under the brand names of Hydra and SensArray, are designed to be simple and low-cost devices, to create a network of readers in high volume for high read accuracy.

California technology startup SensThys and RFID company Alien Technology have co-developed an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID reader aimed at making RFID deployments low enough in cost that users can afford to install a greater number of readers and, therefore, boost their read accuracy.

The new product is available under two names—the Hydra (sold by Alien) and the SensArray (sold by SensThys)—and is designed to use Power-over-Ethernet Plus (PoE+) to daisy-chain both power and data from one device in a network to another. According to the two companies, the network can typically be installed within a matter of hours.

SensThys is a technology spinoff of investment firm InSite Partners. InSite had invested in several RFID technology providers, says Jo Major, SensThys's CEO, and has spent the past year or so speaking with Alien Technology regarding the coming opportunities in RFID technology. The SensArray and Hydra readers are the first result.

The companies found that many RFID deployments were still too expensive for some users in retail, logistics, health care and manufacturing, and that because they needed to control installation costs, businesses often installed a system that lacked the density required for read rates near 100 percent. "Some companies have very expensive, complex readers" that capture UHF RFID reads, Major explains, sometimes with a variety of other sensors built in.

The problem, Major adds, is that customers have limited resources for such deployments. "Capital expenses are scrutinized very closely," he states, "so the number of read points is minimized as much as possible. But that sacrifices the ability to detect tags."

SensThys and Alien thus developed the new readers that would serve as part of a self-healing, daisy-chained or meshed network that would simply capture data and forward it via PoE+, and that would not require conduit for power, or the added expense of intelligence built into the device. The readers could incorporate sensors as well, Major notes.

"We see RFID completely differently than our competitors," says Neil Mitchell, Alien's senior director of marketing. "Our goal is to drive down the cost as far as we can." To do that, he explains, the companies developed a system with "a high number of very simple readers." The goal, he says, was "to crush overall system costs."

In fact, Mitchell adds, the companies have found that the lower cost of reader hardware, along with reduced installation and operations expenses, meant that deployments were 40 to 55 percent cheaper than the cost of a standard UHF RFID system. With that reduction in cost, he indicates, businesses could more easily add readers as needed.

Jo Major

Whether under the Hydra or SensArray brand name, the passive UHF RFID reader uses 30 decibel milliwatts (dBm) of power and comes with a 10-inch, 8.5 dBic antenna. The device has a built-in four-port Ethernet and a bidirectional PoE+ switch to network readers together. It can operate as a single standalone reader or be daisy-chained into a string of collaborative read points.

The devices, when daisy-chained, would act as intermediaries sending read data back to a server, where software would manage that data. Alternatively, they can connect to a more intelligent reader, such as Alien's ALR-F800-X with Emissary software, which replaces the need for a server.

The Hydra and SensArray flat readers are sized the same as most 10-inch RFID antennas, with a profile of 250 millimeters by 250 millimeters by 21 millimeters (9.8 inches by 9.8 inches by 0.8 inch). One version of the reader has two Ethernet ports supporting data and PoE+ power in and out for daisy-chaining, while the higher-priced version supports three PoE+ Ethernet ports (the third port is used to provide greater data robustness or for connection to more power). DC power is also offered on this model. Both models have self-healing capabilities so that if one daisy-chained device loses its power and data connection, the others can reform the network around it.

The devices can be networked in potentially unlimited numbers when it comes to the transmission of data, Major says, but can receive and share power with up to five readers, after which an additional PoE+ input or a 48-volt power supply would be required. The system comes with other functions as well, he notes. For instance, the devices can flash a visible light alert when prompted to do so from the software, thereby enabling users to view the specific device that requires maintenance.

Ultimately, Mitchell says, the new readers enable lower up-front installation costs and greater flexibility than standard UHF systems can provide. For example, if a user were to decide that he or she needed greater location granularity in a particular area, or if there were a large number of tag reads that required reader density, additional Hydras could be installed and simply plugged into the nearest Hydra's Ethernet port.

Neil Mitchell

Alien also offers a developer kit for those seeking to trial the solution. The kit includes a Hydra reader, an ALR-F800-X reader with Emissary software, an antenna and a four-port PoE switch.

The two companies are currently in beta rollouts. Several businesses that have been using the technology fall within the range of applications for which the product is designed: in warehouses, at dock doors, or for monitoring work-in-progress, retail stores or tag-commissioning stations.

Major and Mitchell have both declined to name the price of the readers, but claim that they will be less expensive than standard UHF RFID readers. In fact, they report, the devices will save users an average of $225 per read point as compared to traditional readers.