RFID everywhere

Amusement park Legoland in Billund, Denmark, has taken the concept of “lost and found” to a new level. If a child gets lost somewhere between Titania’s Palace and Safari Park, a parent quickly can home in on the youngster’s location using a cell phone and rented ID worn by the child.

At its opening day in March, the park launched this child-tracking system, which relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) and wireless LAN technology. If a child wearing a wireless-enabled wristband gets lost, parents can send a text message to an application called Kidspotter, which sends a return message stating the name and co-ordinates of the area of the park where the child is located.

Word of the Legoland RFID implementation started spreading this week — right about the time technology bloggers started yapping about an RFID hoax that hooked some unsuspecting journalists. The subject of the hoax was about a rifle designed to fire RFID chips into people to track them.

The idea of an RFID rifle is crazy, but there are some pretty far-out RFID applications in operation. It’s no wonder people are getting fooled. RFID chips for tracking penguins in Antarctica? True. Tags for keeping up with marathon runners? True. Tags embedded in new US$20 bills? Nope, that’s just an urban legend.

Heightened interest

RFID technology has been around for decades — in World War II the Allied forces used it to identify friendly aircraft. So why is the technology getting so much attention now? In a word, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. News that the retail giant is using RFID technology to track products as they pass through the supply chain has elevated awareness of the technology.

In an effort to reduce shipping errors, theft, overstocks and out-of-stocks, Wal-Mart is requiring its top suppliers to begin shipping RFID-tagged cases and pallets by January 2005; live pilots began last week. Other influential buyers — including Albertsons Inc., Target Corp. and the U.S. Department of Defense — have followed suit, fueling an explosion of spending on RFID gear and services.

Research firm Venture Development predicts worldwide spending on RFID hardware and software will nearly double from US$1.1 billion in 2003 to US$2.1 billion in 2005, thanks in large part to retailer mandates.

While the retail supply chain is the most visible RFID setting these days, it’s by no means the only one. Nor is it the first.

“Supply chain as an RFID application is emerging, but RFID as a technology sure as hell isn’t emerging,” says Bill Liard, RFID program director for Venture Development. “There are tons of other RFID applications that are making a lot of money already. The possibilities are endless . . . that’s what makes it so exciting.”

RFID has long been used to track livestock — an application that is getting a lot more attention since last year’s tainted beef incident in the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are just beginning work on a five-year, US$550 million computerized animal-identification system.

“It took a big beef scare in the United States for us to realize we need to track our animals a little better,” Liard says.

The challenge is expanding the deployment of tracking technology beyond the grazing field and into store shelves, so a product can be traced back to a specific animal, if necessary, he says. “That’s when it becomes interesting,” Liard says.

The healthcare industry has completely embraced RFID. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is pushing pharmaceutical companies and distributors to begin tagging products by 2007 to combat drug counterfeiting. Within hospitals, RFID is used to track physical assets, such as expensive medical equipment, and organic supplies.

Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is looking at RFID as a way to make sure blood slated for transfusion gets to the proper patient. The risk of transfusion of blood to the wrong patient is more than 100 times greater than the risk of transmitting an infectious disease through a blood transfusion, says Walter “Sunny” Dzik, co-director of blood transfusion service at the hospital.

The hospital is working with wristband supplier Precision Dynamics and software maker Lattice Inc. to develop an RFID-based solution to the problem of transfusion error in operating rooms.

On a less life-threatening note, NFL superstar Emmitt Smith is spearheading a campaign to use RFID tags to authenticate sports memorabilia and combat the swell of counterfeit memorabilia changing hands over venues such as eBay. Smith spoke on the subject at an event tied to last month’s RFID World 2004 conference in Denver.

Texas Instruments Inc. is working with Smith to devise a way to embed an RFID transponder in items such as photographs or jerseys without harming the artifact, says Bill Allen, marketing communications manager for the RFID division of Texas Instruments. The vendor is considering a variation of a transponder it developed for tagging rental uniforms that must be able to withstand exposure to industrial washings.

People, too

RFID is not just for tracking objects and animals. In a move that has raised the hackles of privacy watchers, Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, N.Y., uses RFID to automate some attendance-related functions. According to Gary Stillman, director of the 422-student K-8 charter school, reports of the school’s RFID intentions are greatly exaggerated.

“Some people claim I’m secretly implanting chips under their skin, I’ve been labeled the devil,” he says. “We’re just trying to find an easy way of keeping track of the kids in the morning.”

Each student has an ID card with an embedded RFID chip. Two kiosks manned by faculty members are located at the school’s entrances. When a student is within 18 to 24 inches of the system, the reader activates the RFID chip and the student’s photograph is displayed on the kiosk screen so that a faculty member can confirm the student carrying the ID matches the photo.

“Our mission is to service kids living in poverty,” Stillman says. “The school is open from 7 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night, with all sorts of extra programming for kids. We needed to get a flexible system that we could use to take attendance at different times of the day if we wanted to — and we’re moving towards that.”

Enterprise Charter School has spent US$25,000 on the system — students’ ID tags cost US$3 each. Right now the school only uses RFID to automate attendance. Its next planned project is to install an RFID reader in the cafeteria to discretely signal to cashiers whether a student is to be charged full price, a reduced fee or no charge at all.

The school is considering using RFID in the library, but the expense of tagging every book is a deterrent, Stillman says. Likewise, he would consider installing RFID readers at building exits, as a safety precaution, to monitor students who leave during school hours, if technology prices come down.

“Maybe in another year or two, that would be a natural progression for us. But we’re not that far yet. Frankly, it’s just a function of money,” he says.

While there’s been some criticism of the school’s RFID rollout among the Internet population — several Weblogs contain strings of critical commentary — the negativity hasn’t come from school families. Enterprise Charter School took care to outline its RFID plans to parents, and they’ve been well received, Stillman says.

“So far we haven’t had one parent even question it. Not one. Because it’s just so simplistic. We’re just taking attendance,” he says.

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