Each spring, the who’s who from the world of RFID get together for three days of show-and-tell at the annual RFID Journal LIVE! Conference. And the trends we spotted at this year’s event, which took place in Orlando earlier this month, definitely have us talking. Zebra Technologies was a cornerstone sponsor of RJL2016, and we were pleased to be invited to participate in their booth. We presented one of our key RFID solutions: a personnel tracking RTLS application that we demonstrated using an office blueprint and an army of colorful, miniaturized RFID-tagged robots. The demo was eye-catching and fun, and it really opened up some interesting conversations with people exploring the potential of RFID for their own operations.
Between our demo chats and the educational sessions that our team attended, we honed in on the following three topics as ones surfacing as key takeaways – game-changers for the future of RFID solutions.
1. Traveling Wave Antennas
RFID systems have three main components: readers, tags, and antennas. The most common use cases for RFID reveal a high demand for real time locationing (RTLS), being able to tell where things are at any given moment. From an infrastructure perspective, this presents potential limitations that can make RFID expensive and sometimes even inaccessible.
As an example, consider using RFID for inventory control. Standard RFID practices today would have you install an antenna for each shelf or group of shelves. The antennas commonly used with RFID generate a cone-shaped field region. This means that an antenna placed above a shelf receives signals not just from the objects on the shelf below it, but also from objects on the shelves slightly to the sides of it, creating an undesirable overlap that can lead to inaccuracies and duplicate reads. Shielding can be used to minimize this effect, but again just adds to the overall complexity and price of RFID infrastructure.
Instead of a cone-shaped field, newly developed traveling wave antennas generate a linear field region. This means that they can be easily directed to accurately define an area by sending and receiving signals only to the objects below them – ideal for rectangular shelving units and, therefore, shelf-level inventory.
Beacons, like RFID tags and readers, use radio frequencies for passing and collecting unique identification information about specific items and/or people and their movements. While beacon technology is not new, there has been a significant increase in the rate of development of beacon technology as an alternative to existing active tag RFID system components. For some use cases, beacons offer distinct advantages over UHF passive and active RFID that are making them increasingly disruptive in the RFID space.
One major advantage to beacon solutions is that they can be much easier to implement than active RFID solutions. Because beacons essentially work with almost any Bluetooth-enabled device with a WiFi connection, it’s possible to set up a beacon solution that requires only a reader. RFID solutions have traditionally required tags, readers, antennas, and all associated cabling. This makes beacon systems, which only require beacons and readers, less expensive.
While RFID may still be a better choice than beacons for high-volume tracking applications, the potential for beacons to unseat RFID as the technology of choice for alternative use cases is undeniable.
3. Real-Time Locationing System (RTLS)
RTLS provides enterprises with real-time visibility of people and objects within a building or other confined area. You can think of RTLS as a sort of GPS for your resources, inventory or assets.
Like beacons, RTLS is not a new concept. However, the number of vendors now offering RTLS infrastructure has grown significantly. As RTLS capabilities continue to grow and evolve, professional services providers will have more technology options to offer their clients.
One advance we already have seen in RTLS technology is in the availability of readers that can support an ever-increasing quantity of antennas – up to 42 antennas on a single reader in some cases. Some of these multi-port antennas can be particularly well suited to RTLS applications because they allow for the triangulation of a location of a specific tag and can thus supply application providers with x,y coordinates for that tag. The granularity of location that these RTLS infrastructures are capable of is also improving – in some cases, down to within 5 feet.
Even without the RTLS capability, the availability of readers with so many ports is lowering the overall cost for deploying an RFID infrastructure, as the number of readers required per implementation is reduced dramatically. The combination of multiple ports and RTLS within these new and evolving hardware technologies, however, is now making RTLS technology a cost-effective solution for use cases like inventory management in smaller retail stores.
Expanding Possibilities for RFID
As we’ve mentioned, none of these concepts is entirely new to us. In fact, our demo in the Zebra booth is an example of an RTLS solution. But we are excited to see these advances make headway in the community because they’re helping expand the conversation around RFID and other sensor technologies, and are opening people’s eyes to even more creative ways to use automated tracking and locationing in business.
As a professional services provider, we are constantly updating our technology toolbox to keep our clients well informed about the advances that can make an impact on their operations. If you’re ready to start exploring how RFID and other locationing technologies can improve your business processes, contact us today for a free RFID assessment.