What Is the Purpose of RFID?

By David Dunning

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology designed to allow objects, animals and even human beings to be identified, located, and tracked using radio frequency signals. The history of RFID can be traced back to World War II, when it was used by the British to identify friendly aircraft. The technology has developed over the years and is now used in a wide range of applications.

Electronic Product Surveillance Tag

One of the first commercial applications of RFID technology was the so-called electronic product surveillance tag, developed during the 1950s and 1960s and still in use today. An RFID tag or transponder -- a computer chip with an antenna -- containing a single binary digit, or bit, is attached to retail products. The bit is switched off when the product is paid for, but is switched on and activates an alarm if someone attempts to shoplift the product.

Supply Chain Management

The development of the Electronic Product Code (EPC), which allows any object to be uniquely identified, has led to the increased use of RFID technology for supply-chain management. Compared with other, optical methods of identifying parts, work in progress, and so on, such as barcodes, RFID technology requires no direct line of sight between the RFID tag and the RFID reader. So-called active RFID tags carry their own onboard power supply and can be read at distances up to 100 feet. RFID is therefore relatively cheap, invisible, and easy to deploy compared with competing technologies.

Human Applications

RFID tags can be attached to medicine bottles and, when read by an appropriate RFID reader, provide the visually impaired with audible information about the contents. Similarly, RFID tags can be attached to patient records or even embedded beneath the skin of the patients themselves, to allow medical staff to access vital information simply by waving an RFID reader in the vicinity of the tag. Other human applications of RFID technology include tracking prisoners in secure institutions via special wristbands with embedded RFID tags.

Access Control

The first patent for a keyless electronic access control system based on RFID technology was awarded in 1973. Today, RFID remains a popular method of access control. An RFID access-control system requires no physical contact between the RFID tag and the RFID reader. It is faster, more convenient, and more robust than systems requiring keys or magnetic swipe cards.