From shipments to socks and ants, RFID is tagging everything

RFID is one of those technology terms that is used so frequently that people can become familiar with it without quite knowing what the initials stand for or how it works. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags are used by enterprises like Walmart and the Defense Department as a means of wirelessly identifying and tracking objects as they move though the supply chain. As the "Internet of things" evolves, RFID tags will become ubiquitous. So here’s quick look at the technology and how it’s used.

What it is: Modern RFID tags are only a few millimeters in size and comprise a chip, antenna and in some cases a battery (active). Some forms of RFID tags (passive) have no battery, but actually take power from the electromagnetic beams of a reader, and then send data back to the source. These tags can theoretically last forever, since they only send data or require power when actually being pinged by a reader device. Almost all RFID tags can be inserted into almost anything and do not require line of sight back to a reader. Some tags are so tiny that they have been glued to the backs of ants to track their behavior.

Example: The Florida State’s Attorney’s office uses RFID tags on its case file labels to help it track documents related to 120,000 cases that move through the courts every year. 

But RFID can be used to track everything and anything. At what might seem the extreme end of the spectrum (but is likely a sign of things to come), a new company is selling black socks with RFID tags so not only will you never lose a sock again, but you can keep track of things like each time it’s worn, when it was last washed, and the overall blackness level of the garment compared to others of its kind. 

Bottom Line: Advances in active, passive and semi-passive RFID tags mean that more and more devices will start to contain them. It all comes down to cost. A huge, expensive item like a tractor trailer would probably warrant an active RFID tag with its own battery that could be read from miles away. A crate full of cables or a box of fruit would have a passive tag that could  be read only from about 20 feet away, but which could be thrown out when users were done with it.

As such, there is RFID for almost every application, and its use will only continue to grow. One day grocery stores may be populated entirely by RFID-tagged items. When that happens, you can just lump them into your cart and head out of the store, getting billed for your purchases later. That should make long checkout lines a distant memory, which can’t come soon enough.

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