Manufacturers, event organisers, airlines – even Government departments; everyone seems to be heralding the potential of radio frequency identification these days. But what exactly is RFID and why should growing businesses care about it?
In its most basic form RFID acts rather like a conventional barcode, offering up a wealth of information about an object to anyone in possession of a suitable reader. But, rather than using a printed image to convey this information, the technology utilises tiny radio ‘tags’. The benefit being that, while barcodes need to be swept in front of a laser reader to surrender their information, radio waves can be used to glean the presence, description and exact location of hundreds of objects marked with RFID tags almost instantaneously.
The implications are potentially limitless and research group I-Stat even predicts that the RFID market will grow to $2.8 billion in value by 2009. The control of supply chains – from manufacturer to wholesaler and retailer – is perhaps the most obvious use but there are much wider applications.
‘The key to RFID is imagination,’ ventures Raymond Chu, chief executive of AIM-listed technology innovator RC Group (RCG). ‘For example, you could use RFID to prevent theft of a laptop from an office. As soon as someone tries to carry that computer beyond a certain point it can trigger an alarm and subsequently use GPRS to track its location.’
To reiterate the flexibility of the technology, Chu points out that RCG has already won deals relating to weapon management, document tracking and car parking. Many familiar with the London transport system, meanwhile, will already be carrying around an RFID chip in an Oyster Card.
In October, RCG launched its Airline VIP check-in solution, whereby an active RFID tag in the traveller’s boarding pass will enable an airline to track the location of the passenger in an airport. Real-time flight information will also be provided to passengers when they are in the vacinity of special RFID-activated kiosks.
While the technology is highly flexible, it does have drawbacks. Some critics, for instance, have questioned the privacy issues surrounding RFID. After all, it’s one thing to track objects, but the potential to trace people’s movements is something more sinister. Others have drawn attention to the possibility that computer viruses could be spread using RFID chips. As the technology becomes more widespread these fears will only escalate. The challenge for businesses wanting to use the technology will be to find ingenious applications without impinging on civil liberties.