What Is RFID?

By Mark Roberti

Some people have questioned why RFID Journal considers certain technologies to be radio frequency identification.


An article that we recently published referred to “RuBee RFID,” which apparently upset some of our readers (see Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant Adopts RuBee RFID to Track Tools, Chemicals). RuBee, they insist, is not radio frequency identification, and RFID Journal‘s effort to characterize “every wireless technology as RFID” is not helpful to anyone.

Of course, we don’t consider all wireless technologies to be RFID. We don’t report on Bluetooth, for instance. Our editorial position has always been that the term “RFID” covers a variety of systems and technologies that employ radio waves to identify objects remotely. I would add that the primary function of these systems is identification for the purpose of managing objects or conducting transactions.

Our view is that if something computes, then it is a computer. And if something uses the lower end of the electromagnetic spectrum—where radio waves reside—to identify objects, then it is, by definition, RFID. Referring to RuBee on its Web site, the IEEE Standards Association states, “This standard defines the air interface for radiating transceiver radio tags using long wavelength signals (kilometric and hectometric frequencies, [less than] 450 kHz).” The primary purpose of most RuBee deployments is to identify objects (often weapons), in order to better manage those objects. Hence, it seems pretty clear to me that RuBee is a form of RFID.

Whether discussing RuBee, ultra-wideband (UWB), Wi-Fi or other RFID technologies, RFID Journal‘s goal is to help companies figure out how to use wireless tags to better track and manage their assets, finished inventory, people, raw materials, reusable containers, tools, work-in-process, vehicles and other elements of their business, which can not easily be tracked using any other technology. To that end, RFID Journal—as well as all RFID vendors, for that matter—faces two primary challenges: First, RFID is a brand-new kind of technology, and second, there are many different types of RFID that work in particular applications.

What do I mean when I say that RFID is a brand-new kind of technology? Well, when the first power saws were invented, they replaced handsaws, but people immediately understood what they were all about. The same holds true for landline and mobile phones. RFID is not replacing anything, really. Some call it a radio bar code, and that might be true in certain applications, but RFID enables far more business applications than bar codes could. Kevin Ashton, a co-founder of the Auto-ID Center, once said something to the effect that calling RFID a radio bar code is like calling a car a motorized horse (see Motley Fool Rule Breakers: Interview with RFID pioneer Kevin Ashton).

So the RFID industry needs to educate people about what RFID can do. That’s a tougher sell than educating them about how it can do something better than an existing technology. Saying that ZigBee- and Wi-Fi-based RFID are not actually RFID, but rather something else entirely, only serves to confuses end users. It makes more sense to educate end users that RFID, as a catchall term for these technologies, can help you identify, track and manage your assets.

Once end users accept this idea, then we can educate them about the different types of RFID technologies, and why one might work better for a particular application than another. In fact, RFID Journal has produced a report, titled “How to Choose the Right RFID System: A Step-by-Step Guide,” that does precisely that. This document walks people through the process of evaluating what their needs are; lists all of the different types of RFID systems, along with their strengths and weaknesses; and helps them settle on those that will work best for their particular applications.

For folks who think RFID Journal characterizes every wireless technology as radio frequency identification, I’d like to point out that the report includes a section titled “Alternatives to RFID,” explaining, “Instead of using the radio bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, they employ much lower frequencies (ultrasound) or much higher frequencies (infrared).”

I am interested in hearing your views on this question. What’s your definition of RFID? Are we helping you sort through the issues, or are we confusing things? Please post you opinion below.

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.