Telecoms, Datacoms, Wireless, IoT


Making RFID into a productive technology

16 May 2007 Telecoms, Datacoms, Wireless, IoT

A long time ago printers in computer rooms were specialised items of equipment that needed teams of technicians to service and keep running with regular maintenance shutdowns. Nowadays you buy them off the shelf in the local computer store, plug in to your computer, and even throw away and replace, rather than get them fixed if they ever breakdown. The impact of this progression in printer technology has been that the level of technical skill of the user has fallen so far that when my mother buys a printer for her computer, she does not know if it is laser or inkjet technology.

RFID systems capture information from transponders attached to items and relay this information to a computer system for further processing and decision making in a similar manner to the printer receiving information from the computer and printing it on paper. In fact the fitting of RFID equipment to computer systems is very similar to the fitting of printers to computer systems, just at the opposite end of the computer data stream. In the same way that the technical skill of the printer user dropped, so it is happening with the user of RFID systems.

At the same time there is massive advancement in the performance available from RFID systems with increased range and features, including the ability to locate a transponder exactly as well as read its identity in large spaces. These developments start to strain the abilities of the group in the middle, the software developers who have to take the RFID data and make it into a useful image for the application user.

The challenge is to simplify the use of RFID such that any farmer, home owner, small business owner, hospital, or the like could use the technology. To achieve this the challenges lie in the software manipulation of the data. Although programming at this level itself is a subject that is taught in most high schools and can be handled by scholars, the challenge is to adapt to the existing software systems of the user and their particular needs.

Take for example the farmer with a herd of cows. Computer systems can monitor the amount of milk the cow delivers at each milking, its weight and using programs such as that from Cedara, the vitamins and additional salts can be dispensed into the feed for that particular animal depending on its stage in the milk cycle. With a portable UHF reader, the farmer can, when inspecting the animals in the field, read the identity of any particular animal at a distance of about 10 metres. What one wants to do is present to the farmer immediately on his display attached to the mobile reader, the name of the animal, its date of purchase/birth, its cost, its current weight and how much milk was given at its last milking. To do this the farmer already has all the information needed in many of his databases of the farm, but software is needed to assemble all the required information in a format needed for his decision making. The answer does not lie in trying to standardise all farmers on the same software. This would condemn him to the worst of bad choices. The answer lies in simpler interfacing modules and in simpler routines for standardising access to databases so that if there is a new development, say a method of measuring cattle skin texture, it can also be added to the overall software management of the farm even for the smallest users.

The same problem applies to companies wanting to monitor assets, to stop laptops being removed from buildings, to provide access control systems, to run centralised laundries, to deliver courier parcels and the like. Possibly this software is going to come from the RFID manufacturers rather than the software houses.

As an example, consider interfacing of the hardware. Trolley Scan has in the past (and still does) delivered systems with RS232 interfacing, a standardised 35-year-old technology that was available on every PC sold. More recently, RS232 has disappeared from the computer and now a USB/RS232 adapter is needed. The advantages of RS232 is that it is an industrial preferred standard, can be used over distances up to 1 km, and can be monitored with very simple equipment. Currently Trolley Scan is preparing an interface box that will convert RS232 to TCPIP so that the readers can be attached to any office Internet network, and is looking at RS232 to Bluetooth for the link from the mobile reader to the PDA display.

Besides the hardware challenges of such a move, it brings major software challenges as the data can be delivered anywhere in the world in a fraction of a second (even to your cellphone) - but how is it going to travel that last centimetre from the datafile delivered by Internet to the input of the application that is going to process the data? Each application has its own challenges and the number and variety of applications that use this data is infinite.

With TCPIP and the like, destinations are specified by unique IP addresses and port numbers - how would I get my mother to understand how to set those numbers so that she can hook the RFID reader onto her computer? How am I going to tell her how to find the IP address of her own computer? These are not insurmountable problems but illustrate the challenges to moving to simpler interfacing, application software and making RFID a technology that can be used in every home, farm, and small business.

For more information contact Mike Marsh, Trolley Scan, +27 (0)11 648 2087.



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