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Active RFID Meets Wi-Fi To Ease Asset Tracking

TransAlta plans to leverage RFID, Bluetooth, and several plantwide wireless networks

TransAlta Corp. is no stranger to radio-frequency identification. The Canadian power company uses passive RFID to help maintain equipment in several of its 600-foot-long plants. But TransAlta wants to take things to the next level with a system that combines its Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth technology, and active RFID so it can find equipment and easily read RFID tags and metrics from temperature gauges, vibration probes, and other peripherals using a single, untethered device.

TransAlta plans to replace its existing handheld computers, which can scan passive RFID tags wirelessly but have to be connected physically to other peripherals to gather metrics, with next-generation handhelds such as Intermec Corp.'s Bluetooth-enabled devices. Intermec's handheld computers have built-in Bluetooth capability and come with RFID-enabled handles that easily snap on. The active RFID tags will give TransAlta more flexibility than passive tags because they have more memory and transmit over greater distances.

Active RFID will let TransAlta plants, like this one in Alberta, Canada, track equipment efficiently.

Active RFID will let TransAlta plants, like this one in Alberta, Canada, track equipment efficiently.
Additionally, TransAlta will combine its existing Wi-Fi networks at three power plants in the province of Alberta, Canada, with active RFID capability. It's also investigating software such as AeroScout Inc.'s Visibility System, which supports RFID, real-time location tracking, telemetry, and choke-point detection, which is technology that detects tagged items or people as they pass through gates or other defined spaces. Locating an expensive calibration tool in a power plant six times the size of a Costco store can be difficult, says Paul Kurchina, program director at TransAlta. "We don't want to just identify the equipment like passive RFID does; we want to be able to find it when it's mobile. And using active RFID combined with a Wi-Fi network can tell me exactly where this calibration tool is in the plant, and it can even tell me if it's leaving the premises," he says.

Interest in marrying active RFID and wireless networking is growing, and several startups have stepped in to provide systems. In addition to AeroScout, PanGo Networks Inc. and Ekahau Inc. offer real-time people and asset tracking over Wi-Fi networks to hospitals and manufacturing facilities. Birmingham Heartlands hospital in the United Kingdom, for example, uses Ekahau's positioning software and Wi-Fi-enabled active RFID tags to track and manage patients, personnel, and critical equipment.

The PanGo suite includes the PanOS operating system, the PanGo Locator application, and the PanGo Director, a content-management app that delivers relevant information about an asset based on where it's located. The device that PanGo tracks has power and acts like an active RFID tag. The main goal for customers is to integrate the location of their physical assets with their informational workflow, says PanGo CEO Mike McGuinness. "So we leverage customers' existing investments in 802.11-based wireless networks," he says.

Also, longtime vendors such as WhereNet Corp., which provides a wireless infrastructure for real-time location, messaging, telemetry, and 802.11b applications, and Savi Technology Inc., which provides RFID networks for real-time asset management, are getting in on the action. "Combining active RFID with Wi-Fi is an interesting trend because we're starting to see coalescence of standards," Forrester Research analyst Christine Overby says, "and that's going to support application development on top of these networks and open this up to more companies on the market."

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