RFID: New Low-Cost Consumer Electronics

Growing the Internet of Things

Whether you’re a fashion retailer or a manufacturer of electronics, it’s worth knowing where your products are. Instead of relying on endless box ticking, companies can now use RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags to track the progress of goods from the production line to the customer’s front door. When Wal-Mart made suppliers use the tech in 2005, RFID was propelled into the public eye. It’s easy to see why businesses want to use RFID tags, as they help to keep an eye on productivity. By facilitating connectivity, RFID tags are a massive enabler for the ever-growing Internet of Things. However, there are barriers to wider adoption. The main issue is the cost of developing and installing the tags, although recent work by a team of researchers at Duke University could potentially overcome this. By lowering the cost of RFID tags, the benefits of IoT connectivity will be far more accessible for businesses, and not to mention society as a whole. But how do they work, why are they useful, and how disruptive are they?

How do RFID tags work?
RFID tags work by using electromagnetic fields to identify objects. They do this by heating nanoparticles to create conductivity between an RFID reader and an RFID tag. Although there are so many applications for RFID connectivity, businesses have been discouraged by the cost. The reason RFID tags can be so expensive is to do with the science behind them. In order for nanoparticles to achieve conductivity – in other words, to communicate – they have to be heated up. Using an RFID tag on paper or cheap plastic, for example, is not the best idea. More durable, expensive materials have to be used to stop the technology from melting whatever it’s attached to. Duke University researchers have potentially found a way to address this problem using silver nanowires, which don’t need to be as hot to make the nanoparticles conductive. According to Benjamin Wiley, assistant Professor of Chemistry, nanowires have 4,000x higher connectivity than existing RFID tech. In future, the team want to find even cheaper methods using silver coated copper wires. At CES 2017, Panasonic revealed a razor-thin, bendable battery built with small consumer electronics like wearables in mind. Couple this with affordable IoT, and the potential is huge. Removing the problem of cost (and bulky batteries) from the equation would undoubtedly encourage businesses to invest in the technology. . . but what can be done with it?

What can you do with RFID tags?
The first radio-frequency identification technology began in the form of radio transmitters, used in WWII to determine whether aircraft was friend or foe. The RFID tags we use today help manage inventories and track items. For businesses, once you remove the cost factor, there’s no reason not to have RFID technology in everything. RFID tags have numerous applications and are incredibly useful for businesses that churn out mass product. By connecting products with the production line and wider data analytics, companies can maximise on profit by cutting down on unnecessary costs and improving efficiency. They also have uses outside of identifying inanimate objects. Farmers, for example, use RFID tags to monitor their cattle. If you can identify an animal using an electronic ID tag, then why not a human? As weird and as ethically questionable as that may sound, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in India intends to do just that. This month, the organisation stated that tags will be fitted to children’s hands and contain important information like their parent’s contact details. In short, you really can keep track of anything using RFID.

How disruptive is affordable RFID?
Cheaper RFID tags will change the processes of a number of industries. The Internet of Things, along with automation, has already disrupted production and manufacturing. Mass use of RFID tags will create even more certainty about productivity, and therefore less need for box-tickers on the factory floor. This could be applied to any sector that includes complex processes, like energy providers. Speaking of employees, applying RFID tracking to human beings really opens up a can of worms. If the idea takes off (which it will, if the popularity of wearables is anything to go by), it will cause fundamental societal changes. For a start, traditional verification will become unnecessary – which is admittedly helpful if you have a habit of misplacing your driver’s license. People will be able to access their houses, cars and personal devices via electronic tags, and keep a constant eye on their possessions. They may even be used in the future of targeted advertising.

The widespread use of RFID tags represents yet another step towards a connected world. Simply driving down the cost isn’t the only barrier to adoption – even once you’ve worked out how to make cheaper RFID tags, there’s still the question of security. At a time of rapidly increasing cyberattacks, how can businesses and consumers be sure that they aren’t just making it easier for cybercriminals to corrupt the signals between tags and readers? RFID hardware might be ready for accelerated adoption, but users should be wary of the software within them. The task for developers is to make certain that the tags enabling connectivity are as secure as possible. With cybercrime on the rise, this is easier said than done.

Could your business benefit from the use of RFID tags? Will RFID replace traditional paper ID? Can widespread RFID technology (and the Internet of Things) be secured against cybercrime? Share your thoughts and opinions.