RFID Technology Primer: A Brief RFID History


A Brief History of RFID Technology

Most new RFID enthusiasts are surprised to learn of its rich history, changing from radar systems into the technology it is today. RFID came about from the use of radar during World War II. In 1935 the Scottish physicist Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt discovered that ground crews could be warned of approaching planes by employing radar even though they were still miles away. The problem was how to differentiate between which planes were friendly and coming to land and which ones were the enemy coming in for an attack. The German scientists noticed that if their pilots rolled their planes as they returned to base, it would change the radio signal that was reflected back. This initial crude method alerted the radar crew on the ground that these were friendly German planes and not Allied aircraft coming to attack – presto, the first passive RFID system!

Under Watson-Watt the British went on to develop the first active identity “friend or foe (IFF)” identification system. They put a transmitter on each one of the British planes. When the plane received signals from radar stations on the ground, it began broadcasting a signal back that identified the aircraft as British and not German. RFID works on this same basic concept. A signal is sent to a transponder (aka a “tag”), which wakes up the chip and either reflects back a signal (passive RFID) or broadcasts a signal (active RFID).

After the war, work continued on the radar and radio communications systems. Many American and European scientists and academics did research and wrote papers explaining how RF energy could be used to identify objects remotely. One of the first commercial applications of this technology was for theft prevention.

The United States government also worked in this area on RFID applications. During the 1970s, Los Alamos National Laboratory began tracking various nuclear materials. Scientists began putting tags in the trucks containing nuclear materials and then set-up readers at the gates that would create a portal. The portal antennas would read the tags located in the truck and the tags would transmit the unique ID. Other data such as the identity of each driver was also encoded and transmitted. This system was very successful and was subsequently commercialized in the mid-1980s when the people working on the project formed a company to develop automated toll payment systems based on RFID.

In the last 30 years, many companies have commercialized 125 kHz systems and then high frequency (13.56 MHz). This new system was originally unregulated and unused in most parts of the world. However, it offered greater range and faster data transfer rates. Many European companies began using this type of RFID to track reusable containers and other assets.

By the early 1990s, IBM engineers developed and patented the ultra-high frequency (UHF) RFID system that is commonly used today for passive systems. [Note: High Frequency (HF) is currently a competing technology that offers a longer read range (up to 20 feet under good conditions) and faster data transfer.] IBM sold its RFID patents to Intermec in the mid-1990s. Intermec began designing and deploying many commercial RFID systems, but unfortunately the technology was expensive at the time due to the low volume of sales and the lack of open, international standards.

UHF RFID got a big boost in 1999, when the Uniform Code Council, EAN International, Procter & Gamble and Gillette put up funding to establish the Auto-ID Center at MIT. Two MIT professors, David Brock and Sanjay Sarma, had been doing studies on the possibility of putting low-cost RFID tags on various products in order to track them through the supply chain. Their idea was to put only a serial number on the tag to keep the price down by using a simple integrated circuit chip that stored very little information versus a more expensive IC with more memory. The data associated with the serial number on the tag would be retrieved and then stored in a database that would be accessible over the Internet and could be integrated with other applications.

This fundamentally changed the way people thought about RFID and its use in the supply chain. Previously, tags were expensive and had a great deal of information encoded in them. Now RFID could be viewed as a networking technology by collecting identification data from an object’s tag. This became a paradigm shift for businesses. Now a 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.

For the next four years, from 1999 to 2003, the Auto-ID Center gained support from more than 100 large end-user companies, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and many key and emerging commercial RFID vendors. The Auto-ID Center opened research labs in Australia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Japan, and China. It also developed two air interface protocols (Class 1 and Class 0), the Electronic Product Code (EPC) numbering scheme, and a network architecture for looking up data associated on an RFID tag on the Internet. 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 technology. The Auto-ID Center closed in October 2003, and its research responsibilities were passed on to Auto-ID Labs.

Some of the biggest retailers in the world (e.g., Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Metro, Target, Tesco) and the DoD then began to use the standardized EPC technology to track their assets and goods in their supply chain. The pharmaceutical, tire, defense, retail, and other industries are also moving to adopt the technology. EPCglobal ratified a second-generation standard in December 2004, paving the way for broad adoption.

Year Event
1941-1945 RFID is first used in World War II to differentiate between friendly and enemy aircrafts
1946 Leon Theremin invents an espionage tool for the Soviet Union that retransmitted incident radio waves containing audio information
1948 RFID is invented
1969 Mario Cardullo presents a business plan to investors that includes future RFID application areas of transportation (e.g., automotive vehicle identification, automatic toll system, electronic license plates), banking (e.g., electronic check book, electronic credit cards), security (e.g., personnel identification, automatic gates), and medical areas (e.g., patient identification and history)
1971 Cardullo builds and demonstrates the first passive device for RFID applications
1973 Cardullo receives US patent 3,713,148 for the first true modern RFID system with rewritable memory on January 23, 1973. That same year, Charles Walton, a California entrepreneur, received a patent for a passive transponder used to unlock a door without a key. A card with an embedded transponder communicated a signal to a reader near the door. When the reader detected a valid identity number stored within the RFID tag, the reader unlocked the door. Walton licensed the technology to Schlage, a lock maker, and other companies
1979 RFID is used to track live animals
1987 Norway deploys motor vehicle toll collection RFID system
1994 All US rail cars are RFID-enabled
1999 UHF RFID got a big boost in 1999, when the Uniform Code Council, EAN International, Procter & Gamble, and Gillette put up funding to establish the Auto-ID Center at MIT
2003 EPCglobal was formed in October, 2003 as the successor organization to the MIT Auto-ID Center, the original creator of the EPC technology. EPCglobal manages the EPC network and standards, while its sister organization, Auto-ID Labs, manages and funds research on the EPC technology.

RFID Container tracking is done during Iraqi Freedom campaign

2004 GS1’s EPC “Gen2” air interface protocol, published by EPCglobal, defines the physical and logical requirements for an RFID system of interrogators and passive tags, operating in the 860 MHz – 960 MHz UHF range
2005 Wal-Mart mandates the use of RFID for tracking inventory
2006 EPCglobal Reader Protocol version 1.1 was ratified and made publicly available in August, 2006. Notable features include commands to read, write, and kill tags, access to ‘User Memory’
2008 2008 saw the publication of Gen 2 Version 1.2.0 which incorporated a number of enhancements requested by the retail community to support their RFID rollouts at item level
2015 Publication of Gen 2 Version 2.0.1. is finished in April 2015 with new features including security enhancements

An RFID Chronology


Understanding the history of RFID can help everyone on an RFID project get a deeper knowledge of the technology and how it has evolved.

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