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What exactly is RFID?

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RFID technology is cropping up in more and more places, mostly because it’s an excellent system for tracking things. That’s why it will make its way into everything from warehouses to clothing shops. At McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, it’s being used to track bags. The $100 million monitoring solution is still being tested, but later this year the airport hopes to be the first in the US to put an airport-wide Radio Tag system into full time operation. Each piece of luggage is identified with a familiar looking baggage label, but it also contains a tiny transponder – a small bump that is barely noticeable. Each tag has a unique ID number than can be picked up by an RFID reader and sent along the appropriate conveyer belt. The advantages over the current optical bar code scanners are numerous. Samuel Ingalls, McCarran International Airport: “If for some reason that optical system can’t see the tag – if the tag gets folded, crumpled or isn’t printed correctly – then out of sight out of mind, that bag won’t be read. With the RFID system it’s as near to 100% read accuracy as you can possibly get. In fact our target for this project is 99.8% read accuracy, and we’ve actually been exceeding that.” An airport the size of McCarran handles about 65,000 bags a day. Optical bar code scanners may be able to correctly identify and move only 90% of all items. That means 6,500 suitcases could get lost or delayed every day, and have to be manually repatriated with their owners at an average cost of $100 per bag. The precision and accuracy of RFID is a huge advantage, but baggage handling is just one use for the technology. Samuel Ingalls: “I think there will be many other applications. Whether they are in boarding passes, or passports, or any number of other items that customers and or airlines might need to track operationally, I can certainly foresee that will be the future. The future is very bright for RFID.” At a recent retailers exhibition in Manhattan, RFID systems were everywhere. Some shops are already putting tags in every product they sell. Larger shops, in particular, can accurately track and replace purchased goods instantly. The shop owner can even monitor which items were merely picked up, without being bought. If a tagged object is removed from the shelf, the RFID reader makes a note of it. The customer benefits too. Rachael McBrearty, IconNicholson: “You’re going to have a speedier checkout process because you can scan all the items simultaneously as you leave the store. You can also have enhancements to your customer experience because it can enable quick access to data on that specific product.” Payments can also be handled by RFID tags. Various types of pre-paid cards have a tiny range of only a few inches, which is for security purposes. When placed very near a reader the amount owed is deducted from the card. Since the range and power of tags and readers can be anywhere from a few inches to hundreds of feet there are countless ways to use the technology. But several groups are worried that the RFID lifestyle is open to abuse. For example, next time you go clothes shopping, you might be surprised to find your new pair of jeans triggers a TV display nearby showing accessories. Ken Goldberg, Real Digital Media: “We can have pre-canned vignettes that are cross-matched with certain RFID tags, and then we can play those vignettes, or we can narrow it down to a single image or video, based on what your business rules and application and environment are.” Very useful for some people, but an unwarranted invasion of privacy for others, especially if it’s unclear whether items are tagged or not. One possible solution is RFID blockers. A cursory scan online reveals that ideas along these lines are being developed. This is perhaps not surprising when we consider that we are facing a world where data about us or our belongings is increasingly being transmitted to machines. But one way or another, the RFID conveyor belt is in full flow and seems to be gathering an unstoppable momentum.

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