Written by Michele Wheat
As technology progresses, so do our methods of keeping track of information. The days when data was stored on clay tablets and papyrus scrolls are gone. Today, radio frequency identification (RFID) is used to keep track of everything from lost pets to highway tolls. Whether it's hidden in dog tags or in a wristband at an amusement park, RFID tracking is an effective way to access information quickly and to streamline daily interactions.
The development of RFID tags began during World War II. Radar, invented in 1935, was used to spot the approach of aircraft while they were still well out of the range of sight. German pilots discovered that by rolling their planes, the returning radio signal would have a different signature than that returned by stable planes, which would help identify them to German radar operators. The need to identify friendly planes led to the British development of an identification friend or foe (IFF) transponder, which would serve as the blueprint for modern RFID technology.
RFID technology works on a simple, passive principle. A transponder, usually one without a battery, reflects a transmitted signal back to an inquiring radio receiver. RFID technology was explored during the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not integrated into daily use until the 1970s, when RFID chips were implanted in livestock and railroad cars to enhance data collection. Since then, RFID continues to be widely utilized in both industries.
RFID systems consist of two parts: a tag and a reader. The tag is the passive part of the system. It contains an antenna, capable of both sending and receiving, and a microchip, which stores electronic data. When a RFID reader sends a radio signal, the tag will use the energy from the signal to send its stored data back to the reader, which then translates the information for display on a screen or in a computer system. An RFID tag can be passive, using the transmitted radio wave for energy, or it can be active, housing its own small battery for power.
One of the most common places to find RFID technology is in retail stores. Unlike with bar codes, an RFID tag stores real-time data on store inventory as well as the particular item in question. By scanning an RFID tag, a worker can identify the particular product and also see the remaining number of that product in stock. This use of RFID tags also helps to eliminate theft. When customers exit a store, an antenna transmits a certain signal. If the RFID tag on a product hasn't been logged as sold or removed, an alarm will sound, helping to reduce shoplifting and store losses. Similarly, RFID devices have been introduced for cars, enabling drivers to pass through toll booths without having to dig for loose change.
In the 1980s, one of the first uses for RFID tracking was in livestock farming. Cattle could be outfitted with a tag, either attached to their ear or hung around their neck. The tags could store information about the particular cow, such as its age, ownership, and offspring. In daily life, RFID technology can be found in smaller animals as well, such as in household pets in the form of a microchip. When lost pets are found, the chip, which contains the owner's contact details, can be scanned and translated for a quick reunion.
The Future of RFID
An excellent example of the possibilities of RFID technology can be found in the daily operation of Walt Disney World. In 2013, Disney announced the introduction of MyMagic+, a massive project in which the amusement parks and associated hotels were revamped to support MagicBands. MagicBands are a type of wristband outfitted with an RFID tag, radio, and battery. With MagicBands and a linked smartphone app, Disney eliminated the need for park guests to carry cash, park maps, ride passes, and personal account information. All customers need to do to register a ticket or pay for a purchase is touch their wristband to a designated station. The wristband makes a visit to the park more pleasant, but it also provides the company with invaluable information on how their customers move and congregate and what resources are most valued at certain times. Employees can be directed to where they're needed, and restaurants can begin cooking a customer's chosen meal before the customer even sits down.
An RFID-enabled wristband may sound like a passport to the perfect future, but there are still debates about the issue of privacy. The Disney wristband offers greater convenience to the customer at the cost of providing personal data, such as their physical location, to a company. The risk of RFID malware or hacking is a concern, especially in a world where technology is more easily accessible to average citizens. RFID tracking has a long way to go, but as more challenges are eliminated, it holds the promise of revolutionizing the way we live, work, and travel.