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RFID History

- the beginnings of the history of RFID date back well before the first products were commercially launched.

The history of RFID dates back further than many people may think.

Many say that RFID history dates back to the Second World War, and although the techniques that are used today have been developed significantly since those times and have been used in a different application, the same ideas apply.


RFID history & early beginnings

While RFID history can be traced back to the beginnings of radio, and earlier, it really started to come to life when radio technology was used to passively identify objects.

The first experiments with radio used in this way were conducted by Sir Robert Watson-Watt when he invented radar. This system used a single transmitter receiver which transmitted a high power signal, and the aircraft (in the first instances) passively reflected a small amount of the radio energy back which was received by the receiver in the radar system.

Radar only served to identify the presence of an object, but gave no details about it, apart from its size. It was of particular importance to be able to identify an aircraft to see whether it was "Friend or Foe." As a result Watson-Watt went on to develop a system known as IFF - Identification Friend or Foe. A transponder was placed on each plane and when interrogated by a ground station, it responded with a code to identify it. This is the basis of an RFID system.


Next RFID developments

While radar and IFF systems had demonstrated the principles of remotely detecting and then interrogating objects, for the next stage in RFID history, further development was required to enable these systems to be used for low cost commercial applications.

The first developments were of electronic surveillance tags used for shop packaging. These very simple low cost devices were added to the outside of packages. These had two states and were switched at the payment desk. With sensors at the doors, any tags that had not been switched would be detected and an alarm sounded.


Active RFID

The original tags that were used in the shopping electronic surveillance tags was purely passive - the next step in the RFID history was to develop active tags.

As happens in the development of technology, several people were working on similar types of development around the same time, each with their own approach or result. In one development a US patent was granted for an active RFID tag with a rewritable memory in January 1973.

Also in the 1970s the Los Alamos National Laboratories started to develop a system to track the transportation of nuclear materials securely and safely. The system included a variety of readers and transponders attached to the vehicles carrying the materials. These would then enable the truck to be identified at various points along its route.

In another development in the RFID history, again at Los Alamos, but in the agricultural department needed to devise a system that would allow individual cows to be identified. A system was devised that enabled a passive transponder was injected under the skin of the cow. The RFID was based at a frequency of around 125 kHz transponder drew power from the reader, reflecting back a "backscatter" signal that was modulated with the cow identification information.

While the low frequencies of 125 kHz were initially used, systems around the 13.56 MHz license free frequencies were also developed. The use of the higher frequency allowed for higher data rates and longer ranges to be achieved.


UHF RFID history

While RFID had previously been focussed on lower frequencies where the technology was cheaper, the advantages of the UHF frequency spectrum started to be employed in the early 1990s. Experiments were undertaken by IBM who then trialled them with Wal-mart. However the technology was sold on to Internec and they were able to commercialise the technology.

The main drawback to large scale commercialisation was the lack of standards. Several processes started to come together to ensure proper standardisation that would allow the grown and widespread use of RFID.

In 1999 a number of organisations set up the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This enabled common standards to be set up.

Also the International Standards Organisation, ISO introduced standards for the different elements of RFID from tags to readers and writers, etc.

Another milestone in RFID history occurred when suppliers started to take RFID seriously and in January 2005, Wal-Mart required its top 100 suppliers to apply RFID labels to all shipments.


The history of RFID has shown a steady development in RFID technology. Having its routes in the earliest days of electrical science and then radio, RFID history has come out of developments such as radar and IFF. Now RFID is a technology in its own right which is widely used and showing massive benefits to industry and society as a whole.

By Ian Poole


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