Applying RFID in the Real World

By Patrick J. Sweeney, II

The ability to track and trace, follow and find, and sneak and peek are all enhanced by the use of RFID. Some privacy advocates worry that machines will magically attach RFID tags to your clothing or shoes as you walk through a store or around an office, but this is very unlikely. The limits of the RFID technology are well known and defined by the laws of physics; however, effective ways to use this technology are just beginning to emerge. This article examines some real-world applications of RFID technology and how they benefit the companies involved.

Ski resorts

Ski resorts, hospitals, and water parks are all using RFID wristbands to follow patrons and mine information or eliminate payment steps. The benefits of RFID in this type of situation are twofold. RFID provides a convenience to the user and, at the same time, creates a more efficient operation for the business.

Think of using RFID at a ski resort. A family shows up and gets mom, dad, and the two kids wristbands with not only their lift tickets for the day attached to them but a certain amount of “mountain dollars” associated with the band as well. Each of the kids has $25 in case they want to get a soda or buy lip balm (but not both — if you’ve been to a ski resort lately, you know that would require $50). As it gets colder and the family throws on extra jackets, they don’t have to fumble for their lift tickets because the RFID reader can penetrate easily through a ski jacket. And if one of the kids gets lost, the parents can go to the ski patrol and find out where and when Junior was last scanned, so they know where to start looking for him.

The benefits to the ski resort are that the speed of people onto and off of the lift is greatly increased, and lines are diminished. They also get a lot more information about each skier, such as what their patterns of behavior are, because they can track each individual and their preferences. The lines are shortened because RFID is not line of sight, and people don’t have to fumble for their lift tickets to be verified visually. Counterfeiting lift tickets is also eliminated.

Law enforcement

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the law enforcement community in general are keenly interested in using RFID to track everything from evidence to drug shipments. Here are a few RFID applications in the pipeline:

  • Tracking imports: The Department of Homeland Security is supporting an initiative to put active RFID tags on all containers coming into the United States. This would enable our Customs inspectors to greatly increase their reach by sealing and verifying containers when they are packed and then entering the country as “trusted” cargo.
  • Controlling access to secure areas: Certain vehicles at airports have RFID tags hidden underneath them that allow secure access to restricted areas. RFID readers are embedded in the roadway and determine whether a vehicle is authorized for access.

Pharmaceuticals

One big area of promise for the use of RFID is in the pharmaceutical world. Currently, theft, counterfeiting, and diversion of expensive prescription drugs are driving up costs. Here are some ways that RFID is helping drug companies combat these problems:

  • Theft and counterfeiting: One way for manufacturers to curb theft and counterfeiting is to apply tamper-proof RFID labels to these drugs. Pharmacies and hospitals verify the validity of their stock against a secure database. If this initiative is widely adopted, along with other methods like blister packs and chain of custody, this could completely wipe out counterfeiting.
  • Diversion: A bigger problem that RFID can solve for the drug companies is diversion. This phenomenon arises from tiered pricing structures that the government imposes on pharmaceutical companies and the distribution infrastructure in place.

Here’s how diversion works. Say that Hoboken V.A. hospital orders 1,000 pills from its distributor, Soprano Distribution. Soprano then contacts its supplier and places an order for the V.A. hospital, which means the pricing is 40 percent less than the normal commercial pricing. But rather than place an order for 1,000 pills, Soprano ups the order to 2,000. Soprano ends up getting 2,000 pills at 40 percent off; it then sends 1,000 to the V.A. hospital and keeps 1,000 to sell to its commercial customers at a much higher profit margin.

Although this is an oversimplified example, it happens all the time. In fact, some of the drug manufacturers have even bought back their own drugs from distributors when they were short of product — for more than they sold them — because of this problem.

RFID and a centrally managed and secure database could solve this diversion issue by individually labeling each drug with its own identity information and then recording each time it goes to a particular distributor and what the original pricing was meant for. That way, if a drugstore scans in a new delivery of a drug that’s incorrect, it can send an alarm or notification. The feds can then work back the chain of custody based on earlier scans to see where the diversion took place and, yet again, bust illegal distributors.

Additional business applications

Companies can also benefit from RFID in the following areas:

  • Hazardous materials and recalls: A number of areas relating to hazardous materials and recalls hold huge promise for RFID:

• A great example is the work the RFID team at Michelin has done to embed a passive RFID tag into every tire they manufacture. Although not yet in production, this has huge implications for maintenance, shipping, recalls, and safety inspections.

• Companies manufacturing batteries that must meet disposal regulations can embed RFID tags in their batteries and provide an incentive for consumers to return them for credit on their next battery purchase. This allows the manufacturer to more accurately track the returns and disposals even after the outside bar codes and human-readable text have long worn off.

  • Warranty verification and returns: The Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) is working with manufacturers to use RFID on everything from work-in-process parts to warranty verification and returns. Imagine not having to go through a hassle at your local electronics store when you return the surround-sound system that went on the fritz. They scan the RFID tag on the receiver, note the date and time you purchased it (information that is kept on a store database), and give you a new one.
  • Manufacturing: Many heavy manufacturing industries are seeing the benefit of RFID as well. Automotive manufacturers have used active RFID tags for years and now incorporate passive tags on car windows as they travel through the assembly process to track the entire work in process of the car from start to finish.
  • Maintenance: The airline industry is finding great benefits in its maintenance process. You know those oxygen masks you hope never drop down when you’re flying on a plane? They are attached to bottles of oxygen above the seat that have various expiration and refill dates. To check these bottles, airline personnel used to unscrew each plastic cover and visually inspect the date. It took hours to check a large plane. Now they put an RFID tag, which can be read through the plastic cover, on each bottle and walk down the aisle with a hand-held reader to gather the exact same information in only minutes.

As RFID technology becomes more pervasive (and it’s possible for you to set up RFID systems without a degree in physics), RFID will find its way into our homes and offices in everyday applications, much like the Internet and wireless remote controls already have. The first companies to adopt and optimize the technology are the ones who will leverage the competitive advantage any disruptive technology can offer.