Most of us use RFID technologies every day without realizing it. When someone activates their vehicle’s key fob, an RFID transmitter in the key fob case communicates with an RFID module in the vehicle. And when you check out at a clothing store, the security tag on your purchase is RFID, too!
Didn’t realize those were applications of RFID technology? Many people don’t! But once you understand this technology, you’ll see that it’s just about everywhere. Not only that, but it’s replacing the classic barcode in some industries! Get familiar with the basic workings and most common applications of RFID in the guide below.
What Is RFID Technology?
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. It’s one of many ways that we use electromagnetic waves to transmit information. (Others include WiFi, 4G, Bluetooth, broadcast TV and AM/FM radio.) RFID uses several specific frequencies within the radio spectrum to transmit information over the air with a medium-short range.
Any RFID connection needs three main parts: a tag (transponder), a reader (transceiver) and an antenna. The tag stores data — it could be serial numbers, medical information, security codes or a number of other data types. The reader sends a radio signal to the tag, which fires a signal back to be interpreted by the reader. Both the tag and the reader communicate via tiny antennas to pick up and transmit radio frequencies.
It’s a relatively simple technology that has a lot of surprisingly complex use cases. The versatility of RFID makes it a cornerstone of many different applications, which we’ll talk about in a minute. First, let’s look a little more in detail at what makes RFID such a useful technology.
Advantages of RFID
Why is RFID technology becoming more popular and widely used, and what advantages does it have over the barcode standard? Here are a few of the major upsides of RFID:
- Efficiency and Reliability: RFID is a reliable technology that works even without a direct line of sight between the reader and tag, and some systems can read multiple tags at once. The tags are also usually relatively tough and resistant to everyday rough handling.
- Size: An RFID tag can be incredibly tiny. Some of the smallest models are just mere fractions of a millimeter! Such micro-sized tech offers the opportunity for extremely powerful but low-footprint networks of sensors.
- Storage Capacity: RFID tags can store significantly more data than barcodes can. That makes them suitable for many different applications that need to transmit more complex data.
- Writability: RFID tags are available in read/write configurations that allow the reader both to access information and to potentially change it. Thus, RFID is great for applications that need to monitor multi-step processes, and it has the additional advantage that some tags are reusable.
Challenges of RFID
RFID does have some notable drawbacks that can make it challenging to implement. Let’s look at a few of the most important downsides:
- Transmission Barriers: Certain materials, particularly liquids and metals, block RFID signals. Standard components like aluminum enclosures may not be suitable for RF applications due to their frequency-blocking properties, or they may require special modification.
- Signal Interception: Although it’s not extremely common, RFID can be vulnerable to having signals intercepted and duplicated by bad actors. That makes poorly secured RF devices a potential security hazard.
- Cost: RFID systems tend to have a higher upfront cost of installation than barcode systems, especially because businesses often need to buy a software suite with them.
- Standardization: Barcodes are still the dominant technology in many sectors, so anyone implementing an RFID system needs to ensure that they don’t create friction in their supply chain.
Common Applications of RFID
Where will you find RFID that’s not a clothing store label or key fob case? Lots of places! Check out some of the many applications for RFID today:
- Inventory Management: One of the biggest use cases for RFID is inventory management. It’s a popular choice for businesses that need highly efficient inventory scanning, such as warehouses and fulfillment centers. RFID can also collect data for real-time analysis and monitoring of inventory levels.
- Payments: Contactless credit and debit cards are a newer application for RFID that’s quickly taken off. These cards use RFID frequencies to make point-of-sale payments fast and easy, and they became an especially popular way to reduce touch points during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Pets: People use ID microchips to keep their pets safe, and they work via RFID technology. A vet implants a chip loaded with the owner’s information under the animal’s skin. If the pet gets lost, a vet or shelter can scan the chip to find the owner.
- Transportation: Prepaid highway toll passes use RFID to automatically pay as the driver enters the toll plaza. These passes are a key tool for streamlining traffic flows and reducing commutes, and they’re possible thanks to RFID’s ability to transmit information quickly and reliably.
- Healthcare: RFID is an increasingly common tool for managing compliance and best practices in many different areas of healthcare. Patient tracking bands help reduce the chance of dangerous medical mix-ups, and equipment tracking enables medical facilities to manage supplies safely and effectively.
- Agriculture: The agriculture industry increasingly uses RFID for applications such as tracking livestock animals, and more widespread implementation probably isn’t far off. Soon, we could have RFID solutions that help track the chain of custody for agricultural products to make the food supply chain safer and more secure.
RFID is a technology that’s still on its way up, so look for more applications to appear soon. As more businesses and institutions recognize its potential, there’s no telling what kind of use cases RFID might appear in next!