RFID (radio frequency identification) technology transmits signals that identify the item to which it is affixed. RFID technology is typically called a tag or a chip. Tags can vary in size, and chips implanted into animals or humans are normally small.
The difference between RFID and barcodes
RFID technology has been compared to the function that barcodes perform, but they differ from barcodes in their flexibility. Because RFID emits radio waves, it can be tracked without being seen or scanned (as barcodes have to be). This can make manufacturing more efficient as items come into the warehouse or shop floor and must be monitored and managed (but don’t need one tiny barcode scanned in exactly the right place). RFID technology can also be read from much greater distances than barcodes.
How RFID technology works
With RFID, the electromagnetic or electrostatic coupling in the RF (radio frequency) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is used to transmit signals. An RFID system consists of an antenna and a transceiver, which reads the radio frequency and transfers the information to a processing device (reader) and a transponder, or RF tag, which contains the RF circuitry and information to be transmitted. The antenna provides the means for the integrated circuit to transmit its information to the reader, which converts the radio waves reflected back from the RFID tag into digital information. That data can then be passed on to computers that can analyze it.
The read range of an RFID tag determines how great a distance a signal can cross before being unreadable.
In RFID systems, tags come in two different types. Passive tags use the radio frequency from the reader to transmit their signal. They do not have their own reader, and their read range is relatively short. Passive tags will generally have their data permanently burned into the tag when it is made, although some can be rewritten.
Active tags are more sophisticated. They have their own readers and can transmit much more data. They also have a much farther read range than passive tags do.
RFID systems are useful in most industries where a unique form of identification is needed, from auto manufacturing to retail. Tags can carry simple information, such as a pet owner’s name and address, or more complex details, such as car assembly directions.
- Vehicle assembly: As mentioned above, RFID systems can tell manufacturers what the next step of assembly should be as the pieces move through the line.
- Item management: Items can be tracked and managed closely in the manufacturing industry as they’re shipped and as they travel.
- Hospitals: RFID systems can be used to track patients and manage access to restricted access areas of hospitals and certain medicines, as well as critical equipment.
- Animal tagging: Tagging pets allows owners to more easily locate them if they’re lost. Tracking livestock helps farmers manage their location and health. Data in RFID chips can record their medical history and other details. This can also be helpful for transporting and selling animals.
- Inventory: RFID in retail stores offers real-time inventory tracking that allows companies to monitor and control current inventory supply.
RFID technology can also be placed into the human body in chip form. Many people have already done this, the first being scientist Kevin Warwick in the late 1990s. Thousands in Sweden have also gotten RFID implants.
RFID chip implants emit radio frequencies that interact with certain systems. Users could open a door without touching it if their chip connected to that door system. Though RFID technology has not quite reached this point, users ideally could someday use them to pay for items and to show their driver’s license or insurance card. Standard RFID chips cannot hold or process this amount of data yet. But eventually, RFID technology could develop to allow its wearers to carry secure information in just a chip on their arm.
Some people worry that chip implants would allow governments or other organizations to track wearers. Currently, RFID signals do not transmit far enough for long-distance tracking, though their signal capacity could scale as the technology improves. They do not currently have much computing power, either, though their capabilities could also develop. Some are also concerned that their personal data, consolidated on a small chip in their arm or hand, could be hacked.
RFID chip implants are not yet common, but over the next few years, they could be more standardized.