UN tests RFID tech to speed up snail mail

One of the world’s newest communications technologies soon will be used to track one of the oldest.

The Universal Postal Union (UPU), an arm of the United Nations that coordinates international postal mail services, has embarked on a project to use RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)  to track the speed of international deliveries. The program, using tag processing systems from Reva Systems, will begin a test phase later this month in 21 countries. The UPU expects it to be used in 100 countries by 2012.

In recent years, RFID has gone beyond tracking inventory. The technology may also be applicable to IT infrastructure itself, according to ABI Research.

Unlike private delivery services such as FedEx, regular postal delivery is not operated by a single organization. Consumers buy stamps in one country that have to get a piece of mail into another country and through the domestic mail system there to a particular destination. The UPU sets quality-of-service rules for how long that should take, as well as standard origination and termination fees for countries to settle the cost of getting the mail where it’s going.

Though it may not seem like it to some people anxiously awaiting letters from far-off friends, the UPU regularly monitors how long it takes international mail to be delivered. Parcels have bar codes that are scanned at every point along the way, but traditional letters don’t. About 15 million letters are sent across borders every day, according to the UPU.

So far, the UPU has monitored letter delivery by sending special test letters. Independent analysts record the departure and arrival of these test letters, but at the gateway offices where letters leave and enter countries, postal workers themselves record the time. That leaves the process open to manipulation, said Akio Mayiji, quality of service coordinator at the UPU.

The RFID system instead will use tags hidden inside envelopes, which will be read automatically as they pass through RFID portals at the international gateway offices. Reva Systems’ TAP (Tag Acquisition Processor) servers will collect the letters’ unique tracking numbers and pass them on to be correlated into delivery reports. The UPU wants countries to pay each other based on the quality of service their letters receive, and more detailed measurement will help it do so, Miyaji said.

RFID is already used to monitor mail in some developed countries, but the systems they have deployed use “semi-active” tags that cost US$20 each. A relatively new global standard for RFID, called Gen2, allowed the UPU to introduce passive-tag systems that cost far less: Each tag only costs about US$0.30, and the UPU considers them disposable. The lower cost should make RFID accessible to all of the UPU’s 191 member countries. The scope of quality testing can also be expanded, so tens of thousands of test letters are moving through the system at any time.

The other advantage of Gen2 is that the UPU can deploy locally approved products in each country and know they all comply with Gen2 and can read every tag that is sent through, said Reva Systems Chairman Ashley Stephenson.

“This couldn’t have happened three years ago,” Stephenson said.

The RFID portals are the size of regular loading docks, and all the mail going in and out of a depot passes through them. The tags inside the test letters are about the size of credit cards. They are passive tags, with no power source of their own, but when the radio waves from a portal hit one, it pulls in enough energy from those waves to transmit the data stored within it, Stephenson said. Though such tags can hold hundreds or thousands of bytes of data, these will contain only a globally unique identification number, he said.

The 21 countries involved in the initial Gen2 RFID test are all over the world and include India, South Korea, Switzerland and Togo. Some countries that already have the older RFID systems, including Mexico, Norway and Saudi Arabia, will also be among the 21 test countries.

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