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Identification at a distance

"Intelligent" tags using radio signals to count and track objects are conquering new markets

068-071_EtiquetasInteligentes_207-1Raul AguiarAlmost all things capable of being counted in companies, factories, markets, hotels and hospitals can be identified with the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, which represent a step beyond the bar code system, with many advantages. The world market for hardware, software and services based on RFID tags—also known as “smart” tags—has grown at a rate of 20% per year. According to the American consulting firm ABI Research, the market should amount to more than $70 billion between 2012 and 2017. In Brazil, this area is still in its infancy, but many mostly small companies are currently working on the development of designs and products based on this technology.

An example is RFIDEAS, a startup founded in November 2010 at the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (Cietec) at the University of São Paulo. Today the company has two smart tag development centers: one for software and the other for hardware. In the first, it created the Automatic Real-Time Information System (Artis), a system for tracking and managing IT equipment—servers, storage devices, and laptops—in real time using RFID. It is intended for companies that have large quantities of equipment, such as data centers and offices.  “At the moment, this solution is installed in Alog Datacenters do Brasil, tracking approximately 20,000 pieces of equipment continuously,” says Antonio Rossini, RFIDEAS co-founder and chief strategy officer. “Other companies are already in the process of adopting Artis as a tool to keep track of equipment.”

In the hardware center, the company has been developing a design for a light, portable, smaller RFID reader, which can be installed easily and be sold at a price competitive on the market. The project began in September 2011, when the company was approved in Phase 1 of the FAPESP Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe). At this first stage, the company built a prototype as proof of concept. “We are currently in the second Pipe phase,” says Rossini. “We created a second version of the prototype, which is more advanced and has more functions. The project is scheduled for completion in September 2014, when the first model of the product will be launched.”

All RFID systems operate in a similar manner. They consist of a transponder or electronic tag, a reader, and management software. The tag consists of a chip, programmed with the desired information, and an antenna. Together, they can be encapsulated in various forms such as tags, seals or cards, for example. It can be placed in the badges or access cards of company employees, for example, or even in work uniforms, on collars or ear tags for animals, and in equipment, packaging, clothing, or any product you wish to identify or trace. The transponders can be as small as a grain of rice or as large as a book, depending on your application.

Readers, in turn, can have various shapes and sizes and be mobile, portable or fixed. When fixed, they can be installed in locations such as doors to capture data from the people or objects identified with tags that pass through them. Readers are able to “read” or “capture” the information stored on a tag without physical contact. They receive the tag data transmitted by the antenna via radio waves and convert the waves into digital information, which is processed by management software.

Rossini, at RFIDEAS, provides a few more details about this technology. He explains that there are three types: low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF) and ultra-high frequency (UHF). “The lowest operates in the 125 kHz range and is generally used for tracking pets and access control, among other applications.” The high frequency range is more sophisticated and operates in the 13.5 MHz range. Its principal application is access control and authentication. It is used in badges or entry cards that need to be placed near the reader. For example, the São Paulo city integrated subway/bus system fare card uses this frequency. The UHF RFID technology is the most sophisticated and, in Brazil, operates in the 902-928 MHz frequency band. “Its main characteristic is its reading distance and the ability to read multiple tags quickly,” says Rossini.

Reading at a distance
High frequency RFID technology is subdivided into three categories: passive, semi-passive and active. The first category consists of electronic tags without batteries that are attached to the objects you wish to monitor. They are made of small antennas connected to a microchip and obtain the energy needed to operate through electromagnetic induction created by the wave sent by the reader, and this induction generates an electrical current. The energy allows it to activate its microchip, which then sends back the tag number. The technology allows readers to process hundreds of tags per second, from up to 10 meters away. Its main application is control of product stock, tracking of equipment, and electronic tolls.

Printed circuit for an electronic tag

CeitecPrinted circuit for an electronic tagCeitec

Semi-passive RFID, however, consists of a tag with a battery. Its operation is similar to that of the passive model, but the battery provides more energy and the tag can be read at distances up to 50 meters. The battery-tag pair is inactive until it is activated by a reader. When this occurs, the battery kicks in and activates the tag, which then sends the code a larger distance. This technology was used in the electronic toll system in Brazil until last year, when it migrated to the passive form.

Finally, the active model is also based on a battery-tag pair, but its operation is slightly different from that of the semi-passive model. In this case, the tag emits its code from time to time so that readers can capture it. “Its main advantage is the ability to read the tag at distances beyond 100 meters,” explains Rossini. “Its most common application is in tracking shipping containers in ports.”

Acura Global, following in RFIDEAS’ footsteps, also develops RFID readers. The company is a pioneer in this market in Brazil and Latin America. One of its specialties is the AutoID Secure line, with several vehicle identification models. “Similar to systems already used to collect tolls, AutoID Secure can be used to identify cars, SUVs, trucks and buses in condominiums, buildings and large parking lots,” explains Paul Jarbas, Acura communications and marketing manager. “Our engineers developed the equipment and we manufacture it at our plant in Itajubá, in the state of Minas Gerais.”

Saveway, in the city of Campinas, São Paulo, is developing Savetyre, a tire management system based on RFID technology. It has also received Pipe funding. It consists of tire tags, an offline database for the vehicle, a portable antenna, a device for measuring pressure and groove depth, and database and data management software. The project began in 2007. “At the time, urban passenger transport companies urgently sought significant operational cost savings,” says José Caruso Gomes, founder of the company. “And tires represent a large part of their costs.”

Readers, in turn, can have various shapes and sizes and be mobile, portable or fixed

Eduardo CesarReaders, in turn, can have various shapes and sizes and be mobile, portable or fixedEduardo Cesar

According to Gomes, the first challenge is to develop an RFID tag resistant enough to last the entire life of the tire, including reconstruction and maintenance. It should be part of the tire structure, and not capable of being removed, cloned or replaced. The second challenge is automation of the data collection necessary for tire management for the life of the tire. “These are huge challenges, as the tire is expected to travel up to 400,000–500,000 kilometers,” says Gomes. “During its useful life, it suffers peak temperatures that can reach 400°C (about 750°F), and it may undergo tread reconstruction two or three times.” If all goes well, the first full version of the system is scheduled for launch during the first half of 2014.

A third company that has received Pipe funding to develop a project using RFID technology is Coss Consulting. In 2006, it began a project to develop a generic traceability platform called Welcoss-RFID that can be used in industry for intelligent control of inventory levels and replenishment of materials, to track boxes, crates and carts used for transporting materials, to control medical and hospital supplies, in data centers to monitor equipment, and in agribusiness to track coffee, soy and meat. “We are currently working on a warehouse management application that will allow identification of each item, which will be called Welcoss-WMS (warehouse management system),” says the company’s founder and chief technology and innovation officer, Fredy João Valente. “We are also developing the Welcoss-Safeblood product, which will be a variant of Welcoss-WMS focused specifically on inventory management of blood bags.”

In addition to companies that make RFID readers and systems, there are a few others in Brazil that produce inlays, which are the basic components of a tag, namely the silicon chip and the antenna, which can be made of aluminum, copper or silver. An example is Ceitec, a company in Porto Alegre that produced a chip used to identify and track cattle, which has been on the market since last year. The total Brazilian RFID market is estimated at 5% of the world market, but has been growing at a rate of 15% per year.

1. Fully integrated RFID reading device  (nº 2011/50108-7); Grant mechanism Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe); Coordinator José Kleber da Cunha Pinto/RFIDEAS; Investment R$ 44,148.87 (FAPESP).
2. Safe-blood network: Secure network for handling of blood bags with tracking using EPC RFID smart tags (nº 2008/53489-9); Grant mechanism Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe); Coordinator Fredy João Valente/Coss Consulting, Investment R$ 73,470.04 (FAPESP).
3. Tire Management System (SGP) (nº 2008/55278-5); Grant mechanism Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe); Coordinator José Caruso Gomes/Saveway; Investment R$ 63,629.30 (FAPESP).