The History of RFID

October 17, 2007 at 2:34 pm | Posted in RFID | Leave a comment

I know it seems newfangled, but RFID technology is really quite old. The first use of RFID according to most sources was in World War II. Some credit the invention to the German Luftwaffe, who used actual plane maneuvers to change the way radio waves were transmitted in order to identify friend or foe. The British, however, refined the idea by building an active transmitter about the size of a suitcase and bolting it to the plane. They sent signals from ground towers to activate the transmitters, and could therefore identify friendly planes.

Several generations of RFID improvements have occurred since then. In the 1950’s and 60’s, scientists studied ways they could use RFID to remotely identify an object. At the same time, antitheft RFID systems were developed. These were one-bit systems, which were either on or off. They remained active until the item was purchased, and then were deactivated. These are commonly used in retail today.

In the 1970s, the US Department of Energy asked Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a system for tracking nuclear materials. What they created was an early version of an RFID-enabled gate, which tracked trucks as they moved in and out of the facility. The Department of Agriculture also requested that Los Alamos adapt the technology to track livestock, and low-frequency tags on the ears of cows were the result

Since then, RFID has become very common, but few people recognize the technology when they are using it. It is present in automatic payment systems (such as those used at gas pumps) and on toll-ways and parking garages. An RFID device in the steering column of some cars will not allow the car to start unless it recognizes the correct code from the plastic housing around the key. Babies are tagged with RFID ankle bracelets in hospitals

In 1999 the Uniform Code Council, EAN International, Procter & Gamble and Gillette put up funding to establish the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the Auto-ID Center, scientists designed a different RFID strategy, in which they placed only a serial number on the tag to keep the price down, and therefore allow for wide-scale adoption of RFID in the supply chain. Data associated with the serial number on the tag was stored in a database accessible via the Internet

For businesses, this was an important change, because it made item-level and case-level tagging affordable, and added important logistical benefits. Using this Internet technology, the manufacturer could automatically let a business partner know when a shipment was leaving the dock at a manufacturing facility or warehouse, and a retailer could automatically let the manufacturer know when the goods arrived

Between 1999 and 2003, the Auto-ID Center grew, gained ground with 100 large end-user companies, and was able to work with the U.S. Department of Defense and many key RFID vendors. Auto-ID Center labs were opened around the world, and a series of global standards were developed. The technology was licensed to the Uniform Code Council in 2003, and the Uniform Code Council created EPCglobal, as a joint venture with EAN International, to commercialize EPC (electronic product code) technology. Some of the biggest retailers in the world — Albertsons, Metro, Target, Tesco, Wal-Mart — and the U.S. Department of Defense are using EPCglobal RFID tags to track goods in their supply chains. Many other industries, including the pharmaceutical and health care fields, have begun to adopt the technology for their own uses.

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