McMaster University researching RFID in public transit

McMaster University is working with Bombardier Inc. (TSE: BBD.B ) on a radiofrequency identification (RFID) application that would let public transit operators track the location of crews working on subway tracks.

“The transit environments are quite tricky to work with,” said Pankaj Sood, founder of the McMaster RFID Lab (MRAL) in Hamilton, Ont. This, he said, is because some sections are above ground while others are below, which changes the behaviour of the RFID equipment.

“We would expect the system to operate in a harsh environment,” he said.

Since October, MRAL has been working on a $1.4 million project, $600,000 of which was provided the Ontario Centres of Excellence, a government-funded group that helps organizations commercialize technology. Other contributors include Montreal-based Bombardier, whose products include subway and commuter trains. Sood said he is not authorized to name other partners.

Officials from the Toronto Transit Commission did not respond when asked if their organization was involved in the project, but Toronto is the closest Canadian city to MRAL that operates a subway system.

MRAL is working on a system that would let inspectors and other workers on the tracks  wear RFID cards and have their location transmitted to readers near the tracks. The tags would transmit a signal to subway operators, rather than rely on lights or messages broadcast on the transit communications system. The project will include up to 10 graduate and undergraduate students from McMaster and other universities in Ontario. McMaster expects it will take three years to complete.

‘We are considering other sensor technologies as well,” Sood said. “RFID happens to be one.”

One of the best known RFID applications is in inventory tracking, with companies such as Wal-Mart making RFID mandatory for suppliers.

Other applications include mobile credit card payments. At a seminar last year, speakers described RFID applications in transit fare payment systems, Enhanced Drivers’ Licences and ePassports.

Some organizations are starting to use the technology to track people, said Michael Liard, RFID practice leader at Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based ABI Research Inc.

“You see it in health care, to be able to track mission-critical personnel and/or patients,” Liard said, adding transit agencies are looking at it as well.

“You have these underground tunnels where visibility is extremely limited,” he said. “They have started to look at RFID and similar technologies.”

Other applications include construction and mining.

“We know of all the horrific mining disasters,” he said. “It’s difficult to know if all the workers made it out if something goes wrong.”

Sood said MRAL will examine not only RFID technology but how it works with other systems and how people react to the data it gives them.

“It needs to be in a format that they should be able to process and respond to in a timely manner,” he said. “We are looking at something that makes commercial sense from a technology standpoint as well as a reliability standpoint.”

Sood said MRAL will also look at the business problems.

“You have to really look at the business problems or government agency challenge, that will drive technology selection,” Liard said. “The application opportunities are limitless with RFID.” 

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