RFID everywhere

Used for tracking kids, penguins, but rifle story a hoax

Amusement park Legoland in Billund, Denmark has taken the concept of "lost and found" to a new level. If a child gets lost somewhere between Titania's Palace and Safari Park, a parent quickly can home in on the youngster's location using a cell phone and rented ID worn by the child.

At its opening day in March, the park launched this child-tracking system, which relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) and wireless LAN technology. If a child wearing a wireless-enabled wristband gets lost, parents can send a text message to an application called Kidspotter, which sends a return message stating the name and coordinates of the area of the park where the child is located.

Word of the Legoland RFID implementation started spreading this week - right about the time technology bloggers started yapping about an RFID hoax that hooked some unsuspecting journalists. The subject of the hoax was about a rifle designed to fire RFID chips into people to track them.

The idea of an RFID rifle is crazy, but there are some pretty far-out RFID applications in operation. It's no wonder people are getting fooled. RFID chips for tracking penguins in Antarctica? True. Tags for keeping up with marathon runners? True. Tags embedded in new $US20 bills? Nope, that's just an urban legend.

RFID technology has been around for decades - in World War II the Allied forces used it to identify friendly aircraft. So why is the technology getting so much attention now? In a word, Wal-Mart Stores. News that the retail giant is using RFID technology to track products as they pass through the supply chain has elevated awareness of the technology.

In an effort to reduce shipping errors, theft, overstocks and out-of-stocks, Wal-Mart is requiring its top suppliers to begin shipping RFID-tagged cases and pallets by January 2005; live pilots began last week. Other influential buyers, including Albertsons, Target and the US Department of Defence have followed suit, fuelling an explosion of spending on RFID gear and services.

Research firm Venture Development predicts worldwide spending on RFID hardware and software will nearly double from $1.1 billion in 2003 to $2.1 billion in 2005, thanks in large part to retailer mandates.

While the retail supply chain is the most visible RFID setting these days, it's by no means the only one. Nor is it the first. "Supply chain as an RFID application is emerging, but RFID as a technology sure as hell isn't emerging," says Bill Liard, RFID program director for Venture Development. "There are tons of other RFID applications that are making a lot of money already. The possibilities are endless . . . that's what makes it so exciting."

RFID has long been used to track livestock, an application that is getting a lot more attention since last year's tainted beef incident in the US. Department of Agriculture officials are just beginning work on a five-year, $550 million computerised animal identification system.

"It took a big beef scare in the United States for us to realise we need to track our animals a little better," Liard says.

The challenge is expanding the deployment of tracking technology beyond the grazing field and into store shelves, so a product can be traced back to a specific animal, if necessary, he says. "That's when it becomes interesting," Liard says.

The healthcare industry has completely embraced RFID. The US Food and Drug Administration is pushing pharmaceutical companies and distributors to begin tagging products by 2007 to combat drug counterfeiting. Within hospitals, RFID is used to track physical assets, such as expensive medical equipment, and organic supplies.

Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is looking at RFID as a way to make sure blood slated for transfusion gets to the proper patient. The risk of transfusion of blood to the wrong patient is more than 100 times greater than the risk of transmitting an infectious disease through a blood transfusion, says Walter "Sunny" Dzik, co-director of blood transfusion service at the hospital.

The hospital is working with wristband supplier Precision Dynamics and software maker Lattice to develop an RFID-based solution to the problem of transfusion error in operating rooms.

On a less life-threatening note, NFL superstar Emmitt Smith is spearheading a campaign to use RFID tags to authenticate sports memorabilia and combat the swell of counterfeit memorabilia changing hands over venues such as eBay. Smith spoke on the subject at an event tied to last month's RFID World 2004 conference in Denver.

Texas Instruments is working with Smith to devise a way to embed an RFID transponder in items such as photographs or jerseys without harming the artifact, says Bill Allen, marketing communications manager for the RFID division of Texas Instruments. The vendor is considering a variation of a transponder it developed for tagging rental uniforms that must be able to withstand exposure to industrial washings.

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