What is Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID)?

Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) refers to a type of system that uses radio waves to wirelessly transmit data. It falls into the same "automatic identification technology" category as the bar codes you'll find on supermarket products and the magnetic strips you'll find on the back of credit cards. Just like a bar code or magnetic strip needs to be scanned in order to get the required information, an RFID device must be scanned to retrieve information as well. With the help of terminal emulation software, RFID systems are able to access powerful host computers while "out in the field".

Comparison with bar codes

Unlike bar-code technology, RFID systems don't require contact or line of sight in order to scan and identify information. It can be easily read through the human body, or any material that is not metallic. We've all seen the inefficiencies in supermarkets when service assistants have a tough timing trying to find the bar code in order to scan your grocery item. With RFID, this wouldn't be a problem.

However, RFID systems do pose their own problems. First of all there is tag collision, which occurs when multiple tags are energized by the RFID reader at the same time. Secondly, there is reader collision, which happens when the coverage area of one RFID reader crosses over with another.

How does it work?

There are three parts of any RFID system, including:

  • A scanning antenna
  • A transceiver with a decoder
  • The RFID tag itself that has been programmed with information. This is known as a "transponder".

When implementing and using an RFID system, the aim is to transmit data with the use of a portable device known as a "tag". This data is then read by a "reader" with an antenna, and is processed according to the requirements of the application. A terminal emulator is often used to help the RFID controller.

Firstly, the antenna emits radio-frequency signals over a short range. The antenna offers a means of "speaking" with the transponder, and it also gives the transponder the ability to communicate back. When the transponder crosses the field of the scanning antenna, the activation signal is detected. This wakes the RFID chip, transmitting the required information back to the antenna.

The reader, with its antenna, then decodes the data in the tag's integrated circuit. This data is then passed back to the host computer for processing with the help of a terminal emulator .

Everyday uses for RFID technology

Some of the most common non-business uses for RFID technology include:

  • Microchipping pets or other animals
  • E-Tags for passing through toll booths on the roads
  • Competitive race timing
  • Lift ticket scanning for ski resorts
  • Passport scanning at airports
Uses of RFID in business
  • Asset tracking: Companies may put RFID tags on assets that are lost or stolen, that are under-utilized, or that are simply hard to locate when required.
  • Manufacturing: Companies may use RFID to track parts and to minimize defects. It might also be used to manage production for different versions of an identical product.
  • Supply chain management: Often, RFID is used in closed-loop supply chains to automate various areas of the supply chain and increase efficiencies.
  • Retailing: Major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target use RFID technology to increase supply chain efficiency and ensure products are on the shelves at all times.

Typically RFID and barcode scanning capabilities will be combined within a small handheld computer powered by an embedded operating system such as Microsoft's Windows CE. Some of the more popular device manufacturers include Psion, Intermec and Symbol. Turbosoft's TTWinCE is an ideal solution for terminal emulation on these devices.

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