RFID industry touts accuracy and speed in tracking both people and products

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

Bangkok (Thailand) – RFID tags have long been touted as the successor to  bar codes for tracking products, but did you know that they can help track people as well?  At the Thailand RFID Forum in Bangkok, several companies told us that RFID, when combined with Wi-Fi, can track hospital patients, doctors and even lost children at theme parks.

RFID readers typically can only read tags from a few meters away and there were many companies demonstrating short-ranged asset scanning.  IBM has been selling warehouse scanning solutions for a few years now and showed us their stock room middleware solution using Symbol fixed scanners.

Traditionally warehouses have relied on bar codes on packages, but IBM IT Consultant Rabos Suvanamas told us that these are unreliable and slow to scan.  The bar codes often are damaged, smeared or covered in goop (our words, not his) which makes them difficult to read.  Barcoded packages can only be scanned one at a time and just finding the darn thing can be an adventure in itself.

RFID tagged packages, however, can be scanned quickly because you simply pile them on a pallet and roll them through a scanning station between two scanning posts.  The entire pallet will be scanned with the two Symbol scanners and according to Suvanamas, the worker doesn't need to wait at the station.  “It just takes about one second to scan all the packages on the pallet,” he said.

Suvanamas told us two scanners are used because the RFID signals currently cannot penetrate metal or human flesh, so if the scanner on one side cannot read the tag, then the other side should be able to grab it.  Larger stations capable of accommodating large pallets would also be pushing the limits of RFID tag range with just a single scanner.

Such a system could also be used to track people like in a hospital setting.  Suvanamas said the tags would simply be embedded into the hospital gown or in a wristband.  He joked that patients sometimes just go home when instead they should be walking to the X-Ray room.  Of course doctors could also be tracked using the same methods. Since this is a short range solution, dozens possibly hundreds of scanning posts would have to be embedded in doorways, hallways and other areas.  

Another company, AeroScout, has been doing long-range tracking of assets and people for several years now.  Aero Scout encapsulates RFID tags into a Wi-Fi capable, rugged, carrier.  The resulting package can worn on your wrist, thrown inside a package or simply hung on a piece of equipment.  Most notably the company developed the child tracking wristbands used at the Legoland Europe theme park.

The tags can then be seen, with a special access point, from hundreds of meters away and can also be triangulated if there are at least three access points nearby.

K.Danai with Datapro Computer Systems, a reseller of Aero Scout, told us that their system is also used in hospital settings to track patients, doctors and equipment.  Hospital staff can find life-saving drugs and equipment like crash carts, oxygen tanks and defibrillators in seconds with a simple web page interface (you can see the page in our picture gallery).

Danai said their long-range system could also be used in shoplifting detection.  With their system, a shopkeeper can set up zones in the store and tagged items leaving a zone would alert the nearest CCTV to start recording.  A snapshot would be sent to the store security guard who would then move in to question the shopper.

Aero Scout also has tags with embedded temperature sensors.  These tags are often used in hospitals where drugs must be kept below a certain temperature (Enbrel, a popular and EXPENSIVE drug for rheumatoid arthritis and other ailments must be refrigerated).  If the temperature reaches a certain threshold, an alert is sent to the monitoring station and then to IP phones, Blackberries or any SMS capable phone.

Some drugs cost thousands of dollars and it obviously makes financial sense to keep them at the right temperature, but there are more tasty uses for RFID temperature sensors.  Danai said they could also be used to make sure ice cream (you know how much gourmet ice cream can cost and imagine losing an entire 18-wheeler full of Haagen-Dazs ice cream because the temperature went too high) and other frozen/cold foods stay cool.

The long-range RFID tags sold by Aero Scout aren't cheap and cost $50 and up per tag.  However, they are reusable and fairly rugged.

UPDATE - April 25th - We've corrected the price on the Aero Scout RFID tag.  Instead of $200/tag they're approximately $50 each.

{gallery}200804211{/gallery}