Computer Futures

What Is Radio Frequency Identification

Out of the tumult of World War II came some of the most momentous advances in modern history. Most people, if asked, would perhaps refer to the Manhattan Project and the development of the nuclear bomb, the creation of the jet engine, maybe even the first widespread use of concentrated computer technology.

Another innovation took shape prior to the conflict and was further enhanced during the war, and remains a vital part of our technological landscape to this day: radio frequency identification (RFID), a system whereby radio waves are used to identify people or objects.

The roots of RFID

In World War II, with radar an established tool deployed by Axis and Allied combatants alike, enabling air forces to identify friendly aircraft on crowded radar screens became a priority challenge. The British pioneered placing transmitters on planes, with those transmitters able to send signals back to ground radar stations. This allowed controllers to distinguish between friend or foe.

RFID follows this concept, with a signal sent to a receiving transponder that can then either return that signal in turn, or broadcast the received signal out to other receiving stations.

The commercialisation of RFID

It was during the 1960s that the commercial applications of RFI were first considered. To militate against the theft of items in the retail sector, embryonic technology firms created electronic article surveillance (EAS) equipment. Installations placed at the exit points of stores would detect the presence of tags not removed by staff at paying tills, and thus allowing for the identification of merchandise taken by people as they left premises.

By the 1970s, the agricultural industry had taken to using RDIF tags to help track and manage livestock across marketplaces. The following decades saw the rollout of RFID across automated toll collections throughout the globe, first in Norway in 1987 and then in the USA in 1990.

However it is the ambit of consumer goods that RFID truly found its most readily applicable form. Companies such as Walmart led the way. In 2003, the retailer insisted that its main suppliers conform to fixing pallets and goods with RFID tags. Companies boasting huge supply chains, with subsequent management challenges that accompanied their portfolios, have flocked to the technology as the most cost-effective way of managing stock.

RFID today

Clearly, many of us encounter RFID in many different forms on a daily basis. Probably the most significant advance in the recent use of RFID came in the shape of contactless payment. The ability to pay for goods in-store using smartphones depends on RFID, as does the credit acquisition technology that lies behind travelcards such as the Oyster Card for use on the London Underground. Banks like HSBC, Barclaycard and Natwest have all long since rolled-out contactless payment in the debit and credit cards they supply to customers.

Business use of RFID is not confined to retail or travel. The transportation industry has also found innovative applications of the technology. Airports use it to tag vehicles that use parking space on their sites to improve efficient use of their facilities, whilst rail operators in Canada have deployed the technology to help them control inventories of railcars moving between companies.

The marketplace and RFID

A market analysis by research firm IDTechEx has estimated the 2014 value of the RFID market to be nearly $9billion, with a potential to reach nearly £28billion by 2024. Governments, retailers and transportation firms are the drivers of this growth. To give an example, the Chinese Government announced a $6billion investment as far back as 2008, relying on RFID to drive a national ID card scheme.

However, as with the beginnings of the commercialisation of RFID, it is in retail where economic growth and sustained uptake is most prominent. Upwards of 27% of the total RFID market belongs to retail, with a current value of $8billion: this market segment is expected to consumer an incredible three billion tags this year, and retailers continue to invest heavily – to the tune of $400million – in technology developments in RFID.

RFID in the future

What, then, lies ahead for RFID? In terms of application, the horizon is surely still distant. In the UK, a Conservative think-tank has advocated the use of RFID in prisons in the shape of ‘passive tagging’: effectively helping prisons to move inmates around and monitor their movements to appointments with doctors, family visits or leisure time.

More immediately, it is in evolving systems of identification, transaction and transportation that RFID will continue to flourish. The increased convergence of RFID with other technologies such as GPS and Wi-Fi will increase the benefits for companies looking to improve reporting facilities, better align tasks and monitor / increase cost savings throughout their businesses.

As we move inexorably towards a Cloud future for our data and computing needs, the information gained from RFID technology will be a big part of that data landscape. Retailers would be able to consider hosting inventory data in real-time as part of their presence in the Cloud.

The agility provided by RFID shows no sign of slowing down, and as it meshes with other, more emergent technologies, this robust innovation continues to evolve as we move further into the dynamics of the 21st Century.