PACKET RAT: Not quite up to speed with RFID

The Rat

Michael J. Bechetti

Like many agencies, the Rat's domain is developing strategies to take advantage of radio frequency identification. And naturally, given the whiskered one's desire to duck any expansion of his existing duties beyond being Czar of All Networked Devices, his boss has tagged him with managing the project.

The cyberrodent, as a result, has contrived a number of pilot programs to evaluate the wares that contractors have come around hyping. He's applying the tags to anything that moves, including his help-desk staf- fers'so he can track down who keeps leaving the coffeepot empty.

RFID technology has been controversial in some quarters because of perceived privacy issues'especially as it's being used in the new 'smart' passports that the State Department is preparing to deploy.

Some privacy advocates fear that citizens' personal info could be stolen by someone intercepting passports' responses to readers.

But based on the Rat's experience with RFID, much of the concern may be premature, if not irrelevant. That's because he's having a heck of a time getting any of the readers to work consistently.

So, it was with some excitement that the Rat learned of a new RFID test lab opened at the University of Wisconsin's school of engineering. And, admittedly, not all of the excitement was professional.

For one thing, it meant a potentially dramatic increase in his cheese intake while communing with some old friends over cheap beer and college football.

But it also meant he might get an idea of how to identify the sticking points with his RFID trials'aside from the adhesive backing on the tags. So he lined up a tour of the lab and booked a flight to Madison.

The lab, at the university's Quick Response Manufacturing center, was set up with the help of a number of RFID hardware and software vendors. It includes a special isolation room for baselining the performance of passive RFID labels with different antenna designs.

There's also a test conveyor system and testing configurations of RFID readers to see how well labels can be read under a variety of conditions'such as different conveyor speeds, different pallet contents and varying amounts of air space in the containers.

Apparently, leaving some unused space in a box helps the radio waves propagate better, meaning that the labels get read accurately more frequently.

'Well, that's odd,' the Rat told one graduate student. 'My help desk is full of airheads, and I'm having a heck of a time getting a fix on them.'

As the whiskered one kicked back afterwards with some fellow UW alumni on the student union terrace overlooking Lake Mendota, he thought about how he could apply what he'd seen at the lab.

'Maybe your test subjects are just moving too fast,' suggested a friend.

'Too fast?' the Rat laughed in response. 'You've obviously never put in a trouble call to my help desk.'

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rat@postnewsweektech.com.

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