Too Much RFID

[this was part of the mailing list discussion on the “proximity t-shirt” idea]

Okay so I’m a big RFID nerd, did a lot of consulting work using it.  So here’s a quick brain dump.

Regular passive RFID is designed for identification not localization.  The RFID tags can be reliably read only to within a few centimeters.  But the readers are cheap.  You can get 128kHz (LF) and 13.56MHz (HF) RFID readers for $20-40 and the reader chips themselves for under $2.  RFID tags that work with these systems are around $1.  These systems typically cannot handle multiple tags in the reader’s field at a time.

UHF (900MHz-2.4GHz) passive RFID readers can read up to a few meters, and the tags can be a $0.05 in large quantities.  The readers can get pretty expensive though: >$1000.  These are the systems used by Walmart et al to read a palette of Mach3 razors as they transit the warehouse.  And by the marathon race timers. The standard is called EPC, if you’re interested.  These systems can handle a few hundred tags in the reader’s field, but read time goes down exponentially with tag count.

“Active RFID” has ranges up to hundreds of meters.  The term “active RFID” is a bit loose, since one can describe a WiFi laptop or a cellphone as active RFID tag.  Really it just means an RF radio system that transmits a unique ID using its own power source.  There are active RFID versions of all the above technologies.  Eric’s suggested use of the RF Link boards is essentially an active RFID beacon.  One of my favorite active RFID designs is OpenBeacon ( ).  It uses the ubiquitous Nordic RF chips (used in almost every wireless keyboard & mouse)  Sparkfun has a ton of Nordic boards to play with.

“Localization” of RFID tags can mean two things.  For normal passive RFID, the tag is “located” when a reader sees it.  It’s a boolean: sees it / doesn’t see it.  This is often called “proximity detecton”.  So one way to approach localization is to just have a lot of readers.  True localization (knowing where in a reader’s field-of-view a tag is) is pretty tricky.  The main issue is just finding how far away an RF source is.  The simplest is signal-strength (“the louder you are the closer you are”), but that falls prey to the non-homogeneity of the environment: in free space it would work; in a room full of RF-absorbing humans, it fails.  If you’re really savvy, you can do time-of-flight calculation.  The reader sends out a ping and measures the time it takes to receive the tag’s echo ping. This requires nanosecond-accurate clocks on the reader (speed of light is very fast) and falls prey to multipath distortion (reflections off the environment).  And then you need multiple antennae for a single region to do triangulation.  It’s hard, but RFID vendors are starting to release stuff.

If there’s interest in a RFID show-n-tell, I’ve got examples of pretty much all this  tech I could bring in.  I’d be happy to let folks borrow some of it if they want to test out some ideas.

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