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Efforts to avoid ‘friendly fire’ spawned ancestor of today’s RFID

British soldiers seeking ways to identify friendly aircraft in World War II were given a newly developed radar transponder system called IFF - Identification Friend or Foe. It was a crude system, but it was a way to tap into technology to identify something at a distance. Fast forward 65 years, and you'll find researchers working on today's version of remote identification: RFID - radio frequency identification.

Since the 1920s remote identification technology has been the subject of theory, research and the ponderings of feasible applications.

"If you go back and look at the history of patents for RFID — and it is long and storied — the proposals for applications such as baggage tagging, supply-chain management, all of that exists in patents that are 20-plus years old, all for using RFID or its precursor concepts," said Dan Engels, former research director of the MIT Auto-ID Center, which has since become the Auto-ID Labs and transferred its technology to EPC Global.

The real issue facing the technology, Engels explained, is that the ideas of how to apply RFID have always been several paces ahead of the technology itself. Not unlike other technologies, RFID technology has military roots.

Military need spawned development
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What is now known as RFID can be traced to the British military launch of IFF in 1939. IFF was an answer to a problem posed by the advances of radar systems; before radar systems were in use, a plane could be visually identified by its colors and insignia. But with radar, those markings were irrelevant; all planes appeared as blips whether they were enemy or friend, military or civilian.

Radar signals used by IFF-equipped British craft would be within a certain frequency range, which in turn would be picked up by other IFF-equipped planes. Those planes would then send back a signal in that range but with greater amplitude, allowing an airman to identify it as a friendly plane. While relatively simplistic and still not fully functional, it was a major advance in solving the identification problem.

An engineer named Harry Stockman first theorized the modern RFID transponder system in a 1948 essay, "Communication by Means of Reflected Power." Stockman conceded, however, that the technology of the time was not up to the task of what he envisioned. He was right; it took decades to bring his ideas to fruition.

Anti-theft and inventory control

Over the years, though, different applications arose. The most widespread use of RFID tags in commercial application is anti-theft electronic article surveillance, an application first developed in the late 1960s by companies such as Sensormatic and Checkpoint. By now, everyone is familiar with the tags attached to retail merchandise, with sensors communicating only one piece of information: the presence of the tag itself. Without being deactivated at the checkout counter, the tag sets off an alarm when it is passed through security sensors.

The technology also has helped transform the age-old inventory control practice of animal branding via hot irons or plastic tags clipped to ears. RFID tagging of cattle first popped up in the late 1970s, though only recently has it become widely used for branding.

With cattle, RFID presents an interesting solution for automated supply-chain management of a supply that can move on its own and have autonomous fluctuations in weight and health. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a 29-state pilot program to determine how RFID could be used to track cattle during disease outbreaks, thus helping to protect the food supply.

Highway toll payments with RFID came in the `70s

Another use of RFID with which many are familiar is the use for paying highway tolls. This was also initially explored the 1970s by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey but, like other RFID solutions, it did not come into widespread use until many years later. Norway was first out the gate in the late 1980s, with American roads not far behind. The early 1990s saw the introduction of toll roads in Oklahoma and other southern states where tolls would be collected at highway speeds, without even the need to stop at a booth. The late 1990s saw conventional tollbooths refitted for RFID with E-Z Pass in the New York/New Jersey area, I-Pass in Illinois and other electronic toll systems used throughout the country.

What those systems have had in common, in addition to coming to fruition many years after first being conceptualized, is that they have been based around closed, proprietary technology and required a human being's constant attention for operation and oversight. In short, while uses have flourished, the technology's fundamental interface hasn't changed all that much since IFF.

Core technology remains the same

"The core technology underlying RFID is decades old," explained UW-Madison Professor Raj Veeramani, the Director of the campus-wide UW E-Business Institute and UW E-Business Consortium. However, the lack of a widespread standard and the nascency of the technology kept applications within specific firms for the most part. "The lack of universally accepted standards therefore served as a barrier to large scale adoption and higher cost and vice versa."

The real breakthrough in RFID, Veeramani says, came at the Auto-ID Center at MIT in the 1990s, and its three-year project to develop a standard that would make the common usage of RFID possible.

The goal of the Auto-ID Center was to "create an Internet of things," according to Stephen Miles, a researcher who has been with its successor group, the Auto-ID Labs, for the past two years. By incorporating such network mainstays as DNS-like protocols into chips, each item would have a unique identifier making it possible to track.

Waiting for the five-cent chip

Ironically, the change in philosophy toward eventually producing more efficient solutions may have slowed the growth of the industry itself, according to Engels.

"We kept saying, look, you should be able to have five-cent RFID tags, and the RFID community was trying to sell you one-dollar or more expensive tags," Engels said. "And so everyone kept waiting for the five-cent tag to come out. In fact we're still waiting for that five-cent tag to come out."

Where could the technology go from here? Though he is not at liberty to cite specific pilot programs, Miles spoke of refitting ports with RFID.

Removing human interaction

"If you go to Hong Kong harbor today, where there are 28,000 containers a day shipping across from Zhejiang province into Hong Kong, it'll take days and sometimes weeks to process a container across that customs border," Miles explained. With the future introduction of RFID at ports, however, those days or weeks could be cut down to mere hours.

The real goal, according to Engels, is like that of other technologies: to advance RFID to the point where the human being can be taken entirely out of the operation. That would make it feasible to manage shipments and supply chains more quickly and efficiently - another big step in the history of transportation and commerce.

See previous WTN coverage on RFID:
RFID: a ‘30-year project’
Bar Codes Have a New Best Friend – RFID
North-woods beef jerky maker adopts RFID to track shipments

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com.

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