As we roll deeper into the 21st century, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) labels are set to become ubiquitous, tagging everything from food to animals, medical prescriptions to sports memorabilia. RFID labels offer excellent potential for automatically identifying and tracking objects at a distance, especially in situations where barcodes can’t survive ambient conditions. We’ve seen their use already in retail items, library books, and passports — and whether you know it or not, if you use an electronic toll tag in your automobile, there’s an RFID tag inside that helps keep track of your fees.
As the name suggests, RFID labels use radio waves to identify tagged objects from a distance — usually just a few feet, but sometimes up to hundreds of feet away. Inside the typical RFID label you’ll find two components: an antenna to receive and transmit signals, and an integrated circuit to process signals and store basic information. Passive RFID labels, the type most easily used for direct labeling purposes, can be as thin as a sheet of paper. They don’t carry a power supply of their own; they pick up enough energy from the reader to transmit a response. Interestingly, the antenna needs to be 80 times larger than the chip itself — which is why if you peel the packing off an RFID label, you’ll see parallel silvery lines surrounding the chip in the center. This is actually a squared-off spiral antenna, which takes up most of the label.
Recently, chipless RFID labels have been developed, allowing RFID labels to be printed inexpensively directly onto specific assets. That’s one reason for the coming explosion of RFID label use: they’re already cheap, easy to use, tough, and stable, and they’re only getting more so.
Here are 22 places you might not expect to see RFID labels. Keep in mind, however, that in most cases RFID labels are already in use for these purposes — and if they’re not, they soon will be.
1. Airplane Parts. In its German facilities, aircraft maintenance company Lufthansa Technik uses ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID labels to track the paper documents that accompany aircraft parts, and plans to use RFID tags on the parts themselves very soon.
2. Bottles. The technology for mechanically applying passive RFID labels to plastic and glass containers has existed since mid-2005, but until now its chief use has been for tagging narcotics. However, as the cost of producing these labels drops, you can expect to see them applied to all kinds of bottles, mostly for inventory-control purposes.
3. City Sewers. Rather than carry around easily-soiled paper records, sewer workers in Warendorf, Germany use special readers to interrogate RFID tags imbedded in sewer pipes. New data on pipe status and work completed can then be entered into the sewer department’s computer system, using a handheld device.
4. Collectible Coins. Currently, many so-called “slabbed” collectible coins (that is, those sealed in protective plastic cases) are branded with plain barcode labels. However, inexpensive RFID labels are set to take their place, making inventory control and authentication a snap.
5. Driver’s Licenses. In Washington State, motorists will soon carry driver’s licenses that, in addition to possessing other authenticators like digital watermarks, will also include an RFID inlay. Among other things, this will give Washingtonians an alternative to using passports at Canadian border crossings.
6. Farm Equipment. In recent years, RFID labeling has been used in innovative ways to tag farm equipment. Manufacturer John Deere uses RFID labels to make sure items returned for repair don’t accidentally end up in stores, while some rental providers, like California’s Bear River Supply, use RFID tags to keep track of whom they’ve rented equipment out to.
7. Frozen Goods. In Argentina’s Buenos Aires Airport, RFID tags are used to identify and track goods like chemicals, food, flowers, and vaccines in two cold storage areas. Similarly, Metro Foods recently began tagging 11,000 storage bins with RFID labels in its 10,000-square-meter facility in Hamm, Germany.
8. Government Paperwork. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced plans to implement RFID technology for file management at 14 district offices nationwide, starting in 2008. Passive RFID labels will be attached to each individual paperwork file for ease of tracking and identification.
9. Lab Animals. Recently, the University of Florida implemented an RFID system to track more than 35,000 rodents used for research and experimentation. The RFID labels, which are in the process of being attached to all 11,000 animal cages in the system, will replace an error-prone barcoding system.
10. Livestock. RFID tags attached to the ears of cattle, sheep, and other large farm animals can serve as more than just identifiers — they can also store vaccination and antibiotic information, as well as feed data. They’re more practical than barcodes, and more informative than the plain plastic tags previously used.
11. Medical Charts. At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, the Radiation Oncology Department recently implemented a WiFi-based system for 600 patient medical charts. Active RFID tags are attached to each chart, allowing them to be tracked more easily as they circulate throughout the campus.
12. Military Weapons. The U.S. Army has taken the initiative in developing passive RFID systems to track its weapons. While the potential exists for numerous uses in the defense industry, at the moment the focus is on integrating RFID tags into ground-based systems like tanks in order to keep track of the number, type, and effects of the various rounds fired.
13. Mined Ore. In an imaginative use of RFID labeling, a Brazilian mining company called CRVD has taken to mixing passive RFID tags into its ore as it’s mined, crushed, and processed. This offers better insight into the amount, type, and grade of ore CRVD handles daily.
14. Outer Space. NASA is currently experimenting with RFID labeling technologies for use in outer space, particularly on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. While ordinary RFID labels can be used in interior spaces, NASA is more interested in determining how various ruggedized tags and labels handle the rigors of airless space.
15. People. Although there are significant ethical arguments against tagging actual human bodies, the process of tagging badges and similar accessories has already begun. For example, Wilmington, Delaware’s Christiana Health Care System uses active RFID labels in patient badges to inform its bed-management software, and British nuclear power plants will soon use RFID tags to track workers and their radiation levels. Even Santa’s gotten in on it: at the Santa Claus Office near Helsinki, Finland, the jolly old elf uses RFID labels to manage the thousands of pictures taken with Santa every day during the holiday season. Beware: he also uses RFID badges to help keep track of whether kids have been naughty or nice.
16. Prescriptions. At Jena University Hospital in Germany, RFID labeling on prescription bottles (see #2, above) has proven effective at tracking individual antibiotic prescriptions and reducing medication errors. Similarly, RFID labels that record when drug blister packs are broken are now used by several pharmaceutical companies to track drug trail compliance.
17. Produce Containers. RFID labeling technology is currently undergoing testing on 3,000 reusable plastic containers used to ship produce from three states to Wal-Mart stores in Texas. The idea is to determine whether RFID labels and tags can handle multiple shipment cycles — and so far they’re doing fine.
18. Railroad Boxcars. Railway rolling stock can be notoriously hard to track, so RFTrax, a Texas-based asset management company, now offers a UHF-based RDIF system that uses handheld interrogators to read both imbedded RFID tags on railcars and RFID labels on goods undergoing shipping. The results can be sent to the back-end system using cellular phone technology.
19. Rolls-Royce Engine Parts. Though best known for their luxury cars, Rolls-Royce also builds quality gas turbines and engines for aircraft, submarines, and ocean-going ships. Currently, theyâ€™re testing the effectiveness of an RFID labeling system for tracking parts moving between facilities in Bristol and Ansty, England.
20. Seed Packets. Agricultural giant Monsanto has announced a plan to add passive RFID labels to individual seed packets shipped from its Agracetus research facility in Wisconsin to test farms around the country. For now, the tagging program will be limited to experimental genetically-engineered seed.
21. Sports Memorabilia. December 2007 saw the introduction of an RFID-enabled sports memorabilia authentication system at a convention in Dallas, Texas. For those who wanted them, programmed RFID labels were printed at the show and attached to autographs after they were signed, in order to prove they were genuine.
22. Sugar. In order to prevent contaminant exposure, Imperial Sugar has begun using RFID-tagged plastic pallets to track its sugar after it leaves the refinery. The RFID labels also let the company know where the pallets have been used in the past, so they can avoid those used to handle raw meat and similar items.