The Basics of RFID Technology

The Basic RFID System flow
The Basic RFID System flow

(RFIDWorld.ca) RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification, and it is a common term used for technology that uses radio waves to identify objects or people.  The information, ranging from a simple code or serial number to complex informational data, is stored on a microchip with an antenna.  An RFID can be as small as a grain of sand.

A RFID system or package comes with a microchip with an antenna, a reader that sends out electromagnetic waves, and a database.

When the waves sent out by a reader hit a passive RFID tag antenna, the antenna powers the microchip’s circuit.  The chip then changes up the waves it sends back to the reader which the reader can then convert into digital data.

Passive tags are tags that require power from an outside source (an outside reader) to ignite the microchip.  Such tags have a limited range or space at which they need to be detected from.  This range is between 1 metre minimum and 12 metres maximum.  Larger tags which are called active tags have more power with their own battery source, thus they can be read from a distance of 100 metres or more.

RFID tags were originally used to track Allied aircraft during the Second World War, so that an ally would not shoot down a plane by mistake.  Later, the technology was used to track trains and cattle but as the chip has gotten smaller in size, its usability and efficiency has increased.

Department stores such as Wal-Mart have upgraded their barcode technology by using RFID tags to track inventory.  Stores can now keep track of everything ranging from store merchandise such as cookies, cars and clothing to store credit cards.  Some countries have used RFID tags in library books and passports.  RFID tags can also be attached to pets and people which has been a very controversial topic over the years.

In terms of using RFID tags for human tracking, they usually have a limited range which makes them impractical to physically track someone’s location.  However, this is not impossible.  However, a major issue with RFID tracking devices for humans is privacy related.  The chips can make possible not just tracking a person but also other details such as their spending choices and habits.  RFID tags are not necessarily visible so may remain active even long after the purchase which draws many privacy concerns.

For now, RFID’s popularity has not grown due to a setback: cost.  RFID tags used by Wal-Mart and other stores cost as little as five cents but according to a 2005 report by Forrester Research, five cents is the cost based on a high volume of tags purchased.  If businesses want a smaller number of RFID tags, they can be much costlier. 

Although they are costly, the use of RFID tags is growing. In 2007, IBM announced its decision to use RFID technology for two pilot projects with an Italian division of Honda Motors Corp. and with a US packaging material plant.

So far some provinces in Canada offer RFID tags for drivers licenses.  Quebec, B.C and Ontario drivers can apply for RFID driver’s licenses.  These licenses can be used in the place of passports to cross the border to the US.  In March 2009, Saskatchewan announced that it was cancelling its enhanced RFID license program due to privacy concerns.

 In the B.C. pilot project, 521 people signed up for the “enhanced” licenses embedded with RFID chips.  The new licenses allowed border officials to obtain the following information: gender, birth date, name, citizenship, plus a digital image of the license holder.  An agreement was made between the US and Canada, that information can only be pulled up during a border crossing.

However, in February 2009, the Canada Border Services Agency recalled the database that was being used by the US Customs and Border Protection agency because there was a risk under the USA Patriot Act, for further usage of the information with other American security officials.

In January 2009, Canada started issuing diplomatic ePassports, embedded with a chip and antenna, for a pilot project.  As early as 2011, Passport Canada plans to issue ePassports all around the country.

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