Technology: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a method used to automatically identify and track things using radio waves. It is a two-component system that consists of an identifying tag (or transponder), and a device capable of reading the tag (reader). RFID tags can be applied to any object, including products, animals, or even people, from a given distance. Because RFID relies on radio waves in order to work, the tag can be anywhere from a few inches to somewhere beyond the line of sight of the reader. Based on a number of devices invented during WWII, and refined from a transponder device patented in 1973, modern RFID technology has become a part of our daily lives. Data stored on the RFID tag can range from something as simple as a serial number to several pages of data.

An RFID tag consists of a low power integrated circuit (or microchip) connected to an antenna made from either a copper or aluminum foil that is adhered to an object. Future RFID tags may be chipless designs printed directly onto objects. Readers pick up and decode the data broadcast by RFID tags when powered. There are two ways to power RFID: through radio waves originating from the reader (passive RFID), or with a battery (active RFID). Passive RFIDs are readable at a distance of between four inches and 33 feet (11 centimeters to 10 meters) and have an infinite range of applications, while active RFID tags have a range of several hundred feet and are best suited for specialized applications. Both work in three radio frequency ranges (30-300 KHz, 3-30 MHz and 300 MHz to 3 GHz), based on how they are used.

The U.S. government actively employs RFID technology in a variety of ways. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Department of State (DOS) use RFID tags to store biometric information in passports and Trusted Traveler Program documents. For security purposes, RFID tags used in these types of applications do not contain personal identification information, but rather a number pointing to a record in a secure database. Other uses of RFID tags include tracking military supplies, nuclear waste, and other sensitive or critical items.

In the United States, other common uses for RFID tags include inventory control, merchandise tracking, toll or fare collection, and document verification. RFID is also gaining acceptance in the healthcare industry, which uses it for patient and medication tracking. Also, pet owners often have implantable RFID tags placed in dogs and cats (also known as chipping or microchipping) for identification purposes should they get lost (information on this practice is available from your veterinarian).

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