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Advanced Standards May Propel RFID To Greater Adoption

Specs for high-end active tags and a bid to develop open-source software could see radio-frequency identification applied to sound alarms in high-end security applications as well as to track every 2-liter bottle of Coke.
RFID, the tag-based, asset-tracking technology that's being propelled into widespread deployment thanks to its adoption by Wal-Mart and the U.S. Defense Defense, is about to get an additional boost from several advanced standards efforts as well as bid to take RFID into the open-source world.

The efforts come just as RFID has begun to shed its reputation as a touchy technology, for which readers had to be carefully positioned lest they miss tags attached to shipping pallets and corrugated boxes. "Many of the problems that plagued the first pilots have been resolved," said, Mike Wills, general manager of the RFID business at Intermec Technologies Corp., in an interview. "Experiences will be significantly different, as people begin to implement [RFID] generation 2. They're going to see a measurable difference."

Generation 2 RFID, which refers to a spec defining a protocol for communication between tags and readers, was approved last December by the RFID standards body known as EPCglobal. Now, that standard has been submitted to ISO, the international standards body, where it's undergoing review for approval as a worldwide standard.

"We should see adoption votes take place throughout the summer," explained Wills. "There's a meeting coming up in the next few weeks in Asia to review the [spec]." If approved, the EPCglobal Generation 2 spec will take on an additional designation as the ISO 18000 part 6c standard for passive RFID in supply chain applications.

RFID is about to get a separate software boost from the newly formed Radioactive Software Foundation, which is looking to develop a suite of open-source RFID software that conforms to the EPCglobal's RFID standards. The foundation was established in June in Toronto by two RFID software houses, N4 Systems of Toronto, and Refactored Networks of Kennesaw, Ga.

The availability of such software should spur new players to join the burgeoning collection of RFID vendors. Along with Everett, Wash.-based Intermec, leading suppliers of RFID tags, readers, and complete systems include Symbol Technologies, Philips, Texas Instruments, Red Prarie, EM Microelectronic, Alien Technology, Impinj Inc., and, perhaps surprisingly, networking giant Cisco Systems, among others.

As RFID moves upscale, two other standards efforts now taking shape will assume greater importance. Currently available standards cover only so-called "passive" RFID tags, which are the cheapest and most pervasive implementation of the technology. However, there are two other, more capable but pricier, types of RFID tags, known as semi-active and active. Semi-active tags have an internal battery, which give them longer life and greater range than garden-variety passive tags. Full-blown active tags can add features such as real-time data tracking and built-in motion detectors. "If somebody tries to break into a secure cargo container, active tags have the ability to signal an alarm," explained Wills. "There's a multitude of high value, high security applications where I might want to have [tags with] two-way communications."

In real-world RFID applications, all three tags have their place. "Will there be a blending of technology? Sure, for example, an active tag can become a relay for telling me what's inside that cargo container, down to every passive tag that's inside of it," said Wills.

With the standard for passive tags now in place, Wills said the EPCglobal group has turned its attention toward nailing down specs for their more complex cousins. "They are now beginning to assemble the working groups and steering committees," said Wills. "They're moving into semi-active and active."

Along with availability of standards, a stumbling block toward wider RFID deployment has been the cost of the tags. Currently, passive tags cost between 30 cents and 45 cents in quantity, according to Wills. However, as more vendors entering the RFID equipment market, prices are poised to come down. "I think on the supply chain type of platform, you're going to see prices cut in half in the next year and a half," Wills said.

By 2009, tag prices could go as low as 10 cents, according to some market studies Wills has seen. "I think the ultimate goal is a price point that allows retailers to go to item-level," Wills said. In this scenario, an RFID tag is embedded in every two-liter bottle of soda, as opposed to today's box- and pallet-level usage model.

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