Innovative Auto-ID and LBS - Chapter Nine: RFID Tags and Transponders: The New Kid on the Block

Chapter IX: RFID Tags and Transponders: The New Kid on the Block



Historical Overview

Radio frequency identification (RFID) in the form of tags or transponders is a means of auto-ID that can be used for tracking and monitoring objects, both living and non-living. One of the first applications of RFID was in the 1940s within the US Defense Force (Hodges & McFarlane, 2004, p. 59). Transponders were used to differentiate between friendly and enemy aircraft (Ollivier, 1995, p. 234; Scharfeld (1998, p. 9). Since that time, transponders continued mainly to be used by the aerospace industry (or in other niche applications) until the late 1980s when the Dutch government voiced their requirement for a livestock tracking system. The commercial direction of RFID changed at this time and the uses for RFID grew manifold as manufacturers realized the enormous potential of the technology.

Before RFID, processes requiring the check-in and distribution of items were mostly done manually. Gerdeman (1995, p. 3) highlights this by the following real-life example: “[e]ighty thousand times a day, a long shoreman takes a dull pencil and writes on a soggy piece of paper the ID of a container to be key entered later… This process is fraught with opportunity for error.” Bar code systems in the 1970s helped to alleviate some of the manual processing, but it was not until RFID became more widespread in the late 1990s that even greater increases in productivity were experienced. RFID was even more effective than bar code because it did not require items that were being checked to be in a stationary state or in a particular set orientation. As Finkenzeller (2001, p. 1) rightly underlines, “[t]he omnipresent barcode labels that triggered a revolution in identification systems some considerable time ago, are being found to be inadequate in an increasing number of cases. Barcodes may be extremely cheap, but their stumbling block is their low storage capacity and the fact that they cannot be reprogrammed”. RFID limits the amount of human intervention required to a minimum, and in some cases eliminates it altogether (Hind, 1994, p. 215).

The fundamental electromagnetic principles that make RFID possible were discovered by Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla and Heinrich R. Hertz prior to 1900. “From them we know that when a group of electrons or current flows through a conductor, a magnetic field is formed surrounding the conductor. The field strength diminishes as the distance from the wire increases. We also know that when there is a relative motion between a conductor and a magnetic field a current is induced in that conductor. These two basic phenomena are used in all low frequency RFID systems on the market today” (Ames, 1990, p. 3-2). Finkenzeller (2001, pp. 25-110) provides a detailed explanation of fundamental RF operating and physical principles. Ames (1990, p. 3-3) points out that RFID works differently to normal radio transmission. RFID uses the near field effect rather than plane wave transmission. This is why distance plays such an important role in RFID. The shorter the range between the reader and the RF device the greater the precision for identification. The two most common RFID devices today are tags and transponders but since 1973 (Ames, 1990, p. 5-2) other designs have included contactless smart cards, wedges (plastic housing), disks and coins, glass transponders (that look like tubes), keys and key fobs, tool and gas bottle identification transponders, even clocks (Finkenzeller, 2001, pp. 13-20). The size and shapes of tags and transponders vary. Some more common shapes include: glass cylinders typically used for animal tracking (the size of a grain of rice), wedges for insertion into cars, circular pills, ISO cards with or without magnetic stripes, polystyrene and epoxy discs, bare tags ready for integration into other packaging (ID Systems, 1997, p. 4). RFID espouses different principles to smart cards but the two are closely related according to Finkenzeller (2001, p. 6). RFID systems can take advantage of contactless smart cards transmitting information by the use of radio waves.


The RFID System

RFID can be defined as an electronic tagging technology that allows objects to be automatically identified at a distance without direct line of sight, using an electromagnetic challenge/response exchange (Want, 2004). An RFID system primarily consists of RFID tags or transponders and RFID readers, but can be extended to include antennas, radio characteristics and the computer network used to connect RFID readers (Finkenzeller, 2003). Figure 1 illustrates the configuration, components and interactions present in an RFID system (Hamilton, Michael & Wamba, 2009). RFID readers contain radio frequency modules that emit pulses of radio energy that are detected by tags and responded to with information, such as the tag’s serial number. RFID tags are the labels that are attached to the object to be identified. RFID tags consist of an antenna, a small silicon chip that contains a radio receiver, a radio modulator, control logic, memory and a power system (Garfinkel & Rosenberg, 2005). RFID tags are classified as being passive, semi-passive or active based on their composition. Passive tags are the most common tags, solely powered by the radio frequency signal that is used to transport information, whereas active tags are equipped with on-board batteries (Nemeth, Toth, & Hartvanyi, 2006). Semi-passive tags are passive tags that have had a battery added to boost signal range (Angeles, 2005).


Active versus Passive Tags and Transponders

An RFID system has several separate components. It contains a re-usable programmable tag which is placed on the object to be tracked, a reader that captures information contained within the tag, an antenna that transmits information, and a computer which interprets or manipulates the information (Gerdeman, 1995, pp. 11-25; Schwind 1990, p. 1-27). Gold (1990, p. 1-5) describes RF tags as: “[t]iny computers embedded in a small container sealed against contamination and damage. Some contain batteries to power their transmission; others rely on the signal generated by the receiver for the power necessary to respond to the receiver’s inquiry for information. The receiver is a computer-controlled radio device that captures the tag’s data and forwards it to a host computer.” The RFID tag has one major advantage over bar codes, magnetic-stripe cards, contact smart cards and biometrics- the wearer of the tag need only pass by a reading station and a transaction will take place, even if the wearer attempts to hide the badge (Sharp, 1990, p. 1-15). Unlike light, low-frequency (or medium-to-high) radio waves can penetrate all solid objects except those made of metal. Thus the wearer does not have to have direct physical contact with a reader.

Transponders, unlike tags, are not worn on the exterior of the body or part. On humans or animals they are injected into the subcutaneous tissue. Depending on their power source, transponders can be classified as active or passive. Whether a system uses an active or passive transponder depends entirely on the application. Geers et al. (1997, p. 20f) suggests the following to be taken into consideration when deciding what type of transponder to use. “When it is sufficient to establish communication between the implant and the external world on a short-range basis, and it is geometrically feasible to bring the external circuitry a very close distance from the implant, the passive device is suitable... On the other hand choosing for an active system is recommended when continuous monitoring, independent transmission or wider transmission ranges are required. In particular for applications where powering is of vital importance (e.g. pacemakers), only the active approach yields a reliable solution.”

Active transponders are usually powered by a battery that operates the internal electronics (Finkenzeller, 2001, p. 13). Some obvious disadvantages of active transponders include: the replacement of batteries after they have been utilized for a period of time, the additional weight batteries add to the transponder unit and their cost. A passive transponder on the other hand, is triggered by being interrogated by a reading device which emits radiofrequency (RF) power because the transponder has no internal power source. For this reason, passive transponders cost less and can literally last forever. Both active and passive transponders share the same problem when it comes to repair and adjustment which is inaccessibility. The transponder requires that adjustments and repairs are “operated remotely and transcutaneously through the intact skin or via automatic feedback systems incorporated into the design” (Goedseels et al., 1990, quoted in Geers 1997, p. xiii). Paret (2005) provides one of the most recent overviews of the technical state of RFID and Ohkubo, Suzuki and Kinoshita (2005) cover the technical challenges of RFID.


RFID Components Working Together

Electronic tags and transponders are remotely activated using a short range and pulsed echo principle at around 150 kHz. Once a tag or transponder moves within a given distance of the power transmitter coil (antenna), it is usually requested to transmit information by activating the transponder circuit. The transponder may be read only, one-time programmable (OTP) or read/write. Regardless the type, each contains a binary ID code which after encoding modulates the echo so that information is transmitted to a receiver using the power of an antenna (Curtis, 1992, p. 2/1). The whole procedure is managed by a central controller in the transmitter. Read only tags contain a unique code between 32 and 64 bits in length. Read/write tags support a few hundred bits, typically 1 kbit, although larger memories are possible. The ID field is usually transmitted from a tag with a header and check sum fields for validation, just in case data is corrupted during transmission. Transmission is also a vital part of any RFID system. When information is transmitted by radio waves it must be transformed into an electromagnetic radiation form. According to Geers et al. (1997, p. 8), “[e]lectromagnetic radiation is defined by four parameters: the frequency, the amplitude of the electric field, the direction of the electric field vector (polarization) and the phase of the wave. Three of these, namely amplitude, frequency and phase, are used to code the transmitted information, which is called modulation.”     

Two types of modulation are used- analogue or digital. Common encoding techniques for the former include pulse amplitude modulation (PAM) and pulse width modulation (PWM); for the latter pulse coded modulation (PCM) is common. According to Finkenzeller (2001, pp. 44f) digital data is transferred using bits as modulation patterns in the form of ASK (amplitude shift keying) or FSK (frequency shift keying) or PSK (phase shift keying). A bit rate can be determined by the bandwidth available and the time taken for transfer. Error detection algorithms like parity or cyclic redundancy checks (CRC) are vital since radio communication, is susceptible to interference. It can never be taken for granted that the message transmitted has not been distorted during the transmission process but with error detection implemented into the design, “accuracy approaches 100 percent” (Gold, 1990, p. 1-5).



“The essence of innovation is the blending of ideas with the science and practice of engineering. Nowhere is this process more active than in the area of identification technologies” (Schuster, Allen & Brock, 2008, p. 3).


A Time to Grow, a Time to Nurture

In the mid-to-late 1990s there were relatively a small number of manufacturers in RFID. Coupled with this was the lack of standardized equipment. Service providers therefore had a limited range of systems to choose from. In 1997 Geers et al. (p. 90) identified only “ten manufacturers of passive electronic identification transponders for animals (subcutaneously injectable, bolus, eartag).” Some of the companies on this list included AVID, DataMars, Destron/ID and Euro-ID/Trovan. Within a space of one to two years, this figure more than tripled to include companies that specialized in something other than just the implantation of animals. Some of these companies include: Amtech Corporation, Checkpoint Systems, Cochlear, Electronic Identification Devices, Elmo-Tech, HID Corporations, Identichip, LipoMatrix, Tagmaster, and Trolley Scan. More recently, the potential of RFID has drawn many new companies to the technology, especially for supply chain automation and the tracking of humans and livestock. “At the end of 1988 there were approaching 500 companies which either manufacture or supply auto ID technologies and which were members of an AIM association somewhere in the world” (Smith, 1990, p. 49). This figure of 500 includes companies involved not just in RFID tags and transponders but other auto-ID devices as well, i.e., the whole auto-ID industry. As of February 2009, AIM Global had 50 gold members with chapters in thirteen countries (AIM, 2009).


Early Interoperability Problems

According to Kitsz (1990, p. 3-41) the issue of interoperability in RFID has hardly been addressed in the 1980s. Users could not pick and choose different equipment from several vendors based on price or capability (or any other differentiating factor) with the assurance that everything would work together. As Gerdeman had precisely captured, “[s]tandards have been a cornerstone to the computer revolution and the identification community. Without standards the user community would have significant troubles in communicating with their constituents, gaining significant productivity from common capabilities, or having a point of comparison reflecting the views of the experts” (Gerdeman, 1995, p. 45). In fact, the likelihood even at the turn of the century was that equipment would not work together seamlessly: “systems of one vendor must be compatible with those of another, and must additionally operate under both foreign and domestic regulations. Efforts to develop standards for RFID and various applications are continuing” (Scharfeld, 2001, p. 9). For instance, tags purchased from one vendor would not be read by a device from another vendor.

The conflict in RFID equipment was particularly prevalent in the microchipping of domesticated animals. One politician in Taipei called the microchipping of animals the “joke of the century”. Shu-ling (2001, pp.1f) explained that “…electronically tagged dogs haven’t been reunited with their owners because of the poor quality of some ID chips or conflicting scanner and tag systems… competing tag and scanner systems available on the market make it difficult to facilitate reunions, as public shelters are unlikely to be equipped with a collection of different scanners that could decode every chip in existence.” An American Pet Association (APA) press release in 2001 also discussed the shortcomings of animal chip implants (APA, 2001). These shortcomings could be overcome with standard equipment. This is not to say that RFID implants for pets have not been successful. There are now over 15 million pets that have been implanted worldwide, and increasingly pets are now being reunited with their owners. It is now compulsory to chip implant your pet (cat or dog) in the state of New South Wales in Australia, and to register it with the local council. Simpson (2002, p. 5), provides the following example in the article, ‘Microchip saves trauma for Benson’. “Mrs Stewart said she feared for the worst when her dog went missing. But council rangers were able to identify Benson because he had been microchipped and obtained a lifetime registration.”

According to (Automatic ID News, 1998a, pp. 2f): “[t]he goal of standardization is to create a generic tag and reader that ideally could be purchased from several vendors, resulting in lower costs and multiple ready sources of supply. While standardization makes specifying easier, standards pose a problem in that the tag-to-reader communication is typically proprietary to each manufacturer. The problem is compounded by the fact that tags come in many differing forms and information capacities, and are used in different environments”. This has surely deterred some users from choosing RFID over other auto-ID technologies. Consider the service provider who needs to make a large investment in RFID and only has a choice between vendors and not between equipment components such as tags, transponders, readers, software, etc. In this instance, a proprietary solution from one vendor alone has major implications. For instance, will the vendor support products sold for the lifetime of the business? Will the vendor maintain the system for a substantial period of time? Will future product changes mean that the user will have to make future mandatory investments? Will future expansion cost too much to implement?

To offset this predicament, advocates of RFID point to the ever-increasing investment in new start-up companies focused on RFID technology and applications. These new companies are vital to the technology’s accelerated growth. As users, present and potential, see more and more players entering the market they become more comfortable with the technology and are more likely to purchase RFID systems for long-term solutions. Ames (1990, p. 6-10) uses the words “legitimacy” and “credibility” to describe the effects that new companies have on users and the industry worldwide. More recently however, users are becoming more critical of new start-up companies in most areas of IT&T. Citizens are even more cautious today to buy shares in any company that has not proven itself over time. As one industry analyst put it, the technology needs to be “cooked not eaten raw and today’s businesses have products that haven’t even thawed”.


Standardization: Opposing Forces at Hand

The fact that some RFID manufacturers see standardization as a threat to their survival (Ames, 1990, p. 5-6) does not comfort potential users at all. RFID veteran, Gerdeman, (1995, p. 45) stated that “[g]enerally, politics surround the formation of a standard. There is also a significant amount of technical engineering support” that is required. Some manufacturers believe their core business is based on remaining a closed system supplier so they are not concerned about contributing to a global standards process. The reality is that conforming to a set of open standards will inevitably lead to a reduction in competition based on proprietary interfaces and protocols. However there have been some major trials and industry movements, especially in supply chain management (SCM) demonstrating the value of common standards. Other differentiating factors will subsequently become the basis for competitive advantage.

As RFID begins to find applicability in open systems, vendors have a lot to lose if they are not willing to conform to a set of standards. The potential for the technology is incredible but as long as “[n]obody’s system is ever compatible with anybody else’s” the technology will fall short of its mark (Kitsz, 1990, p. 3-41). Back in 1990 Ames (1990, p. 5-8) predicted that interoperability would become a critical issue after the year 2000, particularly for applications with a global purpose, and this was found to have been true. In the example of herd management, tags are still utilized in proprietary environments. However, worldwide, governments have started to impose regulations which will affect farmers, particularly in Europe and the U.S (Trevarthen, 2006). As traceability of individual animals, literally from the farm onto the kitchen table, becomes a directive rather than a proposal, “[i]nteroperability is essential, and any animal identification system that is not compatible with the larger system will lose its value” (Look, 1998, p. 3). Technology providers will be forced to weigh up the benefits and costs of standardization, the latter of which are likely to be short-term.


From Industry-Specific to Global Standards

“According to industry experts, the growth of RFID, despite its potential, has been stymied by the inability of RFID systems to communicate with each other” (Tuttle, 1997, p. 7). The problem is very much related to the manner in which RFID technology was applied historically. As new applications for RFID were conceived, lead manufacturers with the greatest expertise in that area funneled their resources towards getting that application to market. Over time, standards were developed sporadically and in almost every case prior to 2000, those standards (if any) were industry-specific, for instance for trucking, rail, etc. “All major RFID vendors offer proprietary systems, with the result that various applications and industries have standardized on different vendors’ competing frequencies and protocols. The lack of open systems’ interchangeability has hindered RFID industry growth as a whole, and has resulted in slower technology price reductions that often come with broad-based interindustry use” (AIM Global, 1999, p. 2).

Tuttle (1997, p. 7) is in agreement that “[s]ingle source supplying creates monopoly, which drives prices up- and deters customers.” To solve this problem, manufacturers started working towards a RFID global open standard for communications. Several industry-specific and global organizations have progressed towards addressing RFID standardization, bringing about some commonality in systems. Common items of concern listed by Gerdeman (1995, p. 46) that should be considered as part of the standardization process included: reliability, accuracy, tag life, speed, temperature, frequency, tag position, data content and distance. Since 2000, new RFID ventures like the Electronic Product Code (EPC) initiative of the Auto-ID Centre have been working towards standardization. Part of the vision of EPC is to create a “Smart World” where there is intelligent infrastructure linking between objects, information and people, through a computer network. This infrastructure would be based on “…open standards, protocols and languages to facilitate worldwide adoption of this network” (Brock, 2001, p. 5). Before launching any type of commercial product the Auto-ID Center focused on a standardized architecture model.


The Electronic Product Code

EPCglobal has aided the prospects of RFID throughout the globe (Zeisel & Sabella, 2006, p.145-151). While it has been around for almost a decade now, it is leading the development of industry-driven standards for the electronic product code (EPC). Consider a world where all things are interconnected to support trade. The basic premise of the EPC is that it is globally unique (GS1, 2009). In actual fact, a pallet could be given a unique number, so could a carton within that pallet, and an item within that carton. The usefulness of such an approach is that independent of where a tag is in the supply chain, it can be found and an acknowledgment returned revealing its whereabouts. The EPCglobal network will allow organisations to share information about the data gathered via the RFID tags using secure infrastructure. During the early stages of development, authorities of the EPCglobal network saw an urgent need to apply the network to track and trace within the entire supply chain, theft detection (Huber & Michael, 2007) (figure 2), inventory management, product obsolescence and the management of production within military supply chains. Today, there are still some teething problems to overcome with how the EPCglobal standard synchronizes with other established systems like GS1’s Global Standards Management Process (GSMP) (GS1, 2008).


Organizations Supporting Change

The most influential standards-support group that helped to get RFID off the ground in the early days was AIM. “AIM brings together products with one common capability... [and] has been liberal in including products in the definition of automatic identification” (Ames, 1990, p. 5-19). Byfield (2002, p. 1) concurs with Ames that the term “Auto ID” is an umbrella word to represent all technologies which automatically identify coded items. AIM differs from other organizations in that its purpose is industry-wide. With such a massive potential in auto-ID there was a need “for a specialist non-commercial association to coordinate national and international education. AIM has now firmly established itself as such an association” (Smith, 1990, p. 49) and with global coverage. In 2006, they even had a RFID expert group (REG) working on 7 different projects besides ISO standards: regulatory, privacy, effects of RFID radiation health & safety (public policy), technology selection, and RFID emblem revision and maintenance (AIM, 2006).

First set up in the United States as the Automatic Identification Manufacturers (AIM) association, similar associations are now in operation in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, China, Denmark, Germany, India, Italy, Korea, The Netherlands, Russia and the UK, although historically they had even been established in New Zealand, Australia, and France.. “These associations have been licensed to operate as AIM affiliates by AIM International, the overall governing body…” (Smith, 1990, p. 49. AIM member companies are located in all these countries and they are mostly technology providers, inventors, developers and suppliers of auto-ID technologies. For a list of AIM contacts and locations see AIM Global (1999, p. 13). It offers a host of services including a library of technical literature, an online web site, educational videos, comprehensive exhibitions and conferences on auto-ID (e.g. SCAN-TECH), it publishes Auto ID Today and it is a cosponsor of the Auto-ID User Association among other things (Smith, 1990, p. 50). ISO has also realized the importance of RFID standards and together with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has sponsored a Joint Technical Committee (JTC) to accomplish some milestones. Two committees that are addressing the critical issues of standardization include: Sub-committee 31 (SC31) Automatic ID and Data Capture and Sub-Committee 17 (SC17) Contactless Card Working Group. There are ways to bypass particular steps in the ISO process but one should be aware that there are potential pitfalls to fast-tracking (Halliday, 1999, p. 1). See also the more recent but peripheral work of AIM such as: the guideline on RFID-enabled labels submitted to ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31/WG 4/SG 5 as ISO/IEC TR 24729-1; the guidelines on recycling submitted to ISO/IECJTC 1/SC 31/WG 4/SG 5 as ISO/IEC TR 24729-2, and the guideline on RFID tag and transponder quality incorporated into ISO 17367.


Abiding by Regulations

Frequency Ranges and Radio Licensing Regulations

Manufacturers may voluntarily respect standards but they must abide by regulations. RFID requires the use of radio spectrum “[b]ecause RFID systems generate and radiate electromagnetic waves” (Finkenzeller, 2001, p. 111). It is important that radio services of any kind do not impact one another negatively. To this end, RFID systems are allotted a special frequency range within which they may suitably operate. RFID systems designers need to comply with these regulations.  It should also be noted that the spectrum available for RFID is a limited national resource which is managed independently by each country. For example, in Japan there was no spectrum available for RFID as it had been taken up by other radio services. It was only midway through 2003 that the Japanese government announced that it would allocate a portion of the ultra high frequency (UHF) spectrum for use by RFID systems. “The move paved the way for the global use of UHF tags to track goods in the supply chain” (RFID, 2003).

Back in 1998, Marsh wrote: “[i]n order to bring a measure of uniformity the world has recently been divided into three regulatory areas with a view to trying to get some uniformity within the areas. Uniformity will however only be achieved towards the year 2010 as it requires each country to implement the plans for that region. The regions are: (1) Europe and Africa, (2) North and South Africa, (3) Far East and Australasia.” And this indeed is increasingly coming to fruition. Related to the issue of regulation, Geers et al. (1997, p. 4) see the major problems of RFID as being “the availability of sufficient radiofrequencies with adequate bandwidths, the complexity of governmental regulations and, extremely important, the interference of other users. Another aspect regarding implant applications is the potential damage of the high-frequency waves to the living tissue.” Particular applications will be allotted particular frequency bands, according to the bandwidth required for an application to be successful. For example, injectable transponders require a frequency band of less than 125 kHz whereas an EAS (Electronic Articles Surveillance) transponder systems in retail stores require between 1.95 mHz and 8.2 mHz. Thus RFID regulation can be broken down into four levels- international, national, local and application-specific.


Application-specific Regulations

The tracking of farm animals is beginning to be stringently regulated in some countries such as Australia (Trevarthen, 2006). Among the most regulated markets for the identification and recording of animals is within the European Union. The Council Directive 92/102/EC of 27 November 1992 made it mandatory for certain types of livestock to be marked. In the U.S. AIM and the National Livestock Trust are playing a coordinating role with regard to farm animals. “However, there is no consensus on whether or not one system has to be used for all species, and whether or not there should be only one central database” (Geers et al., 1997, p. 29). In the U.K. farmers ear tag their animals and record them in a central database 36 hours after birth. Farm animals in the Netherlands have been uniquely identified since 1975 for animal health and breeding support. Farmers have the choice of plastic or electronic ear tags or injectable transponders. In the future the animal’s DNA code may be used as a unique identifier. Farmers in the Netherlands use ISO protocol (ISO/DIS 11788-1) to exchange information with central registers. In Belgium a system called SANITEL is in operation which was developed by the Ministry of Agriculture for disease surveillance and premium control (Geers et al., 1997, pp. 29-32). Ever since major outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Europe, the most recent of which was in 2001, and even greater number of regulations have been introduced by government bodies. In the case of the mad cow disease the European Union implemented new rules as of January 2001 “…requiring all cattle over 30 months old to be tested for the disease. The EU has set aside about $1 billion for the tests, which cost about $100 per animal… The European Commission estimates the cost of incinerating slaughtered animals at $3.3 billion” (PBS, 2001). With such losses, countries are looking to safeguard themselves from future disasters by using RFID tags and transponders.


The Importance of Collaboration

Collaboration within the Firm

RFID systems are nowhere near as straightforward as bar code systems. With developing standards, enforced regulations, and technical rules to follow, open internal collaboration within RFID companies themselves is paramount. Both as an entrepreneur and employee, working for a new high-tech company is a challenge. Resources are limited and employees are most likely to be juggling more than one job role. When RFID companies were initially established, interaction between firms was still premature with few competitors willing to share any part of their intellectual property. Thus entrepreneurs of new start-ups have to be focused- on employing the right people with the necessary skills and experience, to be motivated to achieving company goals, to attract investors, to have sufficient capital to continue the development of products and to be able to pay for on-going expenses (Ames, 1990, p. 6-12). Without products, customers cannot buy any equipment from a company, and without frequent incoming sales revenue a business will eventually discontinue operating. This is another reason why companies start small and build up over time.

RFID companies have traditionally begun with a size of 5-10 employees and reached levels of 80-100 persons as customer demand increased. Some larger companies that manufacture contactless smart cards have very large global staff counts however due to multiple downturns in the economy, first around the dotcom crash, and then during the financial crisis beginning in late 2008, companies have begun to lay off thousands of employees. The initial team usually comprises of experts that are technical and have general application knowledge. The most valuable employee in the formative years of an RFID company is one that can deliver solutions to meet the customer’s requirements. The employee will typically have good communication skills to complement their sound technical know-how.

Biomark’s “Our People” description on its web site stated that the company employed people with a wide range of expertise and experience. Drawing these individual resources together to work as a team is paramount. “The team concept used in developing a system ensures the customer of a well thought out, tried and tested solution…” The “Company Philosophy” description supports this: “[d]evelopment and innovation emerge from Biomark’s strongest resource- its employees. Employees are actively encouraged to pursue new theories and ideas in an environment created to foster intellectual growth and development. A team philosophy is utilized in creating new systems for clients; a solution is built upon a solid platform of unified individual strengths” (Biomark, 1999).

The employer is usually the one that builds up the reputation of the firm and makes the initial customer contacts, as well as keeping abreast with what everybody else in the industry is doing. In a great number of countries, particularly in Asia, entrepreneurs realize that it is not solely about ‘who has the best product at the least cost’ but about developing business relationships. As the start-up company becomes involved in the bidding process and wins contracts, a new interactive process begins between the firm and the customer. Ames (1990, p. 5-21) describes this creative process of product innovation in RFID: “[t]he products either come into existence primarily in two ways. First, a company goes outside the ‘business or industry they are in’ to combine existing technologies in a new way, or second potential customers describe problems facing them and the attributes of various products that are needed to solve the problem and this description becomes the blue print for a totally new product. In either case, confusion about what exists, stimulate creative thought and results in a new product- as in the hypothetical example- or a new way to apply existing ones, resulting in a higher quality solution for users.” Compare Ames with Schuster, Allen and Brock (2008, p. 8) who state: “[t]he development of the EPCglobal Network and RFID technology will undoubtedly take many turns in practice. It is seldom that new technology finds application without a great deal of experimentation and a number of failures.”


Private Enterprise and University Collaboration

As firms grow in confidence and stature new relationships begin to take shape outside the company. The least threatening relations a technology provider can form are those with public institutions such as universities. Not only is this a positive public relations (PR) strategy but the research conducted can bear some good fruit. For example as of 2003, Symbol Technologies had established an affiliation with Nankai University of Tianjin in China to support technology-based research. Symbol had strategically chosen a China-based university as a way to show local business partners in commerce and government that it is committed to solutions for the Chinese market. In addition, “Symbol Technologies has always placed a great emphasis on training and education. Some of the most important technological breakthroughs that Symbol has developed have been achieved by working closely with universities” (Picker, 1999, p. 1). A number of university-based research projects had also been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) involving RFID including investigations into the miniaturization of RFID tags (i.e. the PENI tag) and landmine detection equipping bees with RFID “backpacks”.

Undoubtedly the most proactive university-based RFID initiative was the establishment of the Auto-ID Centre which was based at MIT (Hodges & McFarlane, 2004, p. 60). “The Auto-ID Centre is an industry sponsored research centre charged with investigating automated identification technologies and their use with disparate technologies such as the Internet” (Engels et al., 2001, p. 76). Almost from the beginning of its charter, the Center had the support of bar code associations like the Uniform Code Council and EAN International. It was also funded by major companies like Proctor and Gamble, Gillette International Paper, Sun Microsystems and Invensys who were all keen to profit by EPC. The Auto-ID Centre Research Labs are located within Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Cambridge, and the University of Adelaide (Australia). The labs undertook research in three domains including: infrastructure, application and synthesis. Each laboratory was complementary to the other, drawing on individual established strengths. Case in point, the new RFID chair at the University of Adelaide is backed by Gemplus Tag Australia, a company that was originally Integrated Silicon Design (ISD) formed to commercialize technology developed by the university in the 1980s. This company has more than 15 years experience in their respective specialization (Denby, 2001, p. 1). Cambridge, for instance, had a plethora of experience within its Institute for Manufacturing. Initially the research programme was linked to the Automation and Control Group although eventually it was hoped that there would be multidisciplinary participation from groups across the University. The Auto-ID Centre was also the host of the 15th Automatic Identification and Data Capture Institute (AIDC) in 2001. This Institute brings educators together from all over the world to share material on various topics to enable the suitable realignment of undergraduate and postgraduate auto-ID programs being offered by universities worldwide. Other prominent universities who have RFID laboratories include: UCLA, University of Arkansas, Michigan State University, University of Wollongong. University of Wisconsin-Madison, Villanova University, McMaster University, University of Houston.


Patent Explosion

Patents are generally a good measure of the activity within an industry. The greater the number of RFID-related patents filed each month, the greater the likelihood that the technology is growing in importance. Patents also become a source of formal knowledge for firms. By keeping abreast of official patents (using publicly available databases), firms can learn about the latest developments of other companies and their core business focus well in advance of a product launch. According to RFID inventor Mike Marsh who had about 200 international patent applications and was editor of Transponder News (Marsh, 1998, p. 1f): “[t]he time to publication seems typically to be three years, therefore the patents effectively document the state of technology to within three years of the leading edge inventions. This is generally much shorter than one will find in either technical books or even commercial products on the shelves.” A visit to the Transponder News (1998) web site is extremely informative for manufacturers, customers, regulators, academics and other organizations. By 2004, there were over 4000 patents related to RFID. So important was the matter of intellectual property, that 70 lawyers met to discuss ways to overcome obstacles for the industry at large. One point that was focused on was “on just how many patents were covered by EPCglobal's IP policy and what that meant for vendors building products based on the EPC Gen 2 specification.”


Necessary Product Improvements Before 2000

In 1990 Ames (p. 5-4) believed there was room for cross-the-board improvement in RFID systems, particularly in capacity and cost. He also believed that the lack of LAN connectivity on the factory floor and the availability of application software were stifling RFID growth. By 1997 Geers et al. (p. 4) described all the major problems of RFID to being related to regulations. In the seven years between these observations, many incremental improvements were made to RFID. The problem-focus shifted as the technology started to show signs of wider applicability, yet the design goals remained relatively unchanged throughout the same period. In 1990 Ames (p. 6-9) stated that the efficiency of the use of power had to be improved, at the same time reducing the feature size of the tag (as soon as was practical) and incorporating the use of superconductive on-chip interconnection. In 1997 Geers et al. (p. 15) wrote that the main design goal was to develop optimum performance systems, the ability to manufacture items cheaply in large quantities by putting a micro-electronic or integrated circuit (IC) in the transponder, and producing as small a transponder as possible.

Product improvements specific to transponders that are injected into animals was a topic that received attention in the late 1990s. The design of the new transponder itself was highly miniaturized- about the size of a grain of rice. At the same time the implant must have had the ability to transmit information on the ID and body temperature suitable for both animals and humans (Geers et al., 1997, p. 106). Along with miniaturization, low power consumption is seen as a continual mandatory improvement to the transponder. Additionally, chip movement and migration within the body of the animal or human must be eliminated. It is not without significance that “[t]here have also been reports of the chip moving or migrating from its initial injection location over the shoulder. This is very rare in the cat, and slightly more common in dogs with very loose skin... New designs, including the use of special coatings now used in human implants, will make migration less likely” (Vetinfonet, 1998, p. 2).

The Destron Fearing Corporation developed Bio-Pond (a porous polypropylene polymer sheath) which fits snugly on transponders, so that implants stay at the original implant location (Park & Weiser et al., 2001, pp. 1-4). An additional improvement (which was more of a safeguard than a technical advancement) was the ability for the transponder to resist high temperatures within the body of the animal or human. Passive radiofrequency tags should be used in this case but if active transponders are needed, safety must be implemented so that the batteries do not explode or lose power when exposed to high temperatures (Geers et al., 1997, p. 62). Surgical implantation also needed to be improved. “Surgery... has been shown to create some degree of stress, and 4-7 days may be required for the animal to return to equilibrium” (Geers et al., 1997, p. 77). The degree of animal discomfort in the microchip implant procedure has often been misrepresented. Canada’s national pet registry, PETNET, publicized in 1999 that the implant procedure was “quick, safe and painless” (Anitech, 1999, p.1). This is in direct contrast to Geers (1997). While this may be sufficient for animals, it is not for humans. Some of these improvements have come through major technical breakthroughs discovered by university research.


Consumer Fears

The implanting of a foreign object into an animal brings with it some health issues. First, what type of object is being implanted and does it have the capacity to cause harm to the animal? Second, if the animal is being raised for human consumption is the final produce free from contamination? Both these issues may appear hyper-sensitive but they all have their basis in regulations. For example, a transponder’s signal strength must comply with the Postal and Telecommunications Service (PTT) regulations. It was limited to 150 kHz in 2003 but more recently, the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) has proposed higher strengths. Tests are being conducted to see how animals react to this higher signal strength. Active transponders that contain batteries may also pose health risks particularly if there is breakage. Similarly larger devices housed in glass may also be more prone to the risk of breakage. As Geers et al. comments (1997, p. 68): “[i]ntroducing foreign material into animals intended for human consumption inevitably leads to questions about the toxicity hazard for the animal itself, and the risk of contaminating the food chain. The choice of a suitable material encapsulating the electronic circuit is crucial, since it determines the level of biocompatibility as well as other mechanical and physical aspects (e.g. breakage resistance, radiowave transparency).” Even products such as readers must comply with government agency requirements. For instance, Destron’s readers are tested for compliance with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Part 15 Regulation for Electromagnetic Emissions. It should be well noted that the question of chip implants for humans brings with it an even greater number of issues, vastly more complex as well (Rahmoeller, 1988, p. 1).


Once Labeled Conspiracy Theories

While consumers recognize other auto-ID devices like bar codes and magnetic-stripe cards, RFID technologies are more discrete and have traditionally been used for industrial supply automation. Communications about the technology have been mostly between technology and service providers- the average consumer still lacking an elementary understanding of RFID capabilities and its potential uses (Renegar & Michael, 2009; Eckfeldt, 2005). One area that has however caught the attention of some members of the community is prospective humancentric applications for transponder implants (Witt, 1999, p. 89). Conspiracy theorists believe that the ultimate security device, to be enforced by government, will be microchip implants that contain a Universal Lifetime Identifier (ULI). According to conspirators, these implants will be linked to databases that store personal information for each individual that is born. They will be capable of releasing signals into the body that stimulate certain behavior. Ultimately GPS technology and RFID will be used together to track citizens (Michael & Michael, 2009). The ethical and legal implications of such an application have not yet been discussed widely enough, at least not in targeted forums (Michael & Michael, 2005). Once labeled conspiracy theories, scientists and private enterprise have proven that human implants for monitoring and access purposes are not only possible but commercially viable innovations (Masters & Michael, 2007). Consider two examples cases where RFID implants are being marketed for patient IDentification (VeriChip Corporation) and for other bio-sensing related applications (Digital Angel Corporation). The message on the homepage the latter company reads: “Digital Angel: GPS and RFID products are utilized around the world to save lives, ensure the safety of our food supply, reunite loved ones and improve the quality of life. We are a leading developer of technologies that enable the rapid and accurate identification, location tracking, and condition monitoring of what is important to people. Applications of our products include identification and monitoring of pets and fish with our implantable RFID microchips, identification of livestock with our ear tags, GPS based search and rescue beacons for aircraft, ships, boats, and individuals”(Digital Angel, 2009).

Nowadays, however, it is a little rash to label “techno-observers” as conspiracy theorists or even worse “fundamentalists” of one kind or another. Founded in 1999 by Katherine Albrecht, CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) has been among the most vocal organizations speaking out against RFID on retail items and human implants. The current protests on CASPIAN’s home page have to do with the application of RFID in retail product by Gillette, Duracell, Braun appliances, and Oral B products. Albrecht (2003) who is a Harvard University PhD graduate summarized the mission of The Auto-ID Center in 2003 as follows. “The ultimate goal is for RFID to create a "physically linked world" in which every item on the planet is numbered, identified, catalogued, and tracked. And the technology exists to make this a reality. Described as "a political rather than a technological problem," creating a global system "would involve negotiation between, and consensus among, different countries." Supporters are aiming for worldwide acceptance of the technologies needed to build the infrastructure within the next few years.” It is also worth noting that Albrecht has written several books on the matter including Albrecht and McIntyre (2005; 2006).

According to Mechanic (1996), Israeli-born Daniel Man, a practicing plastic surgeon, first patented a homing device implant designed for humans in 1987. A fuller list of patents can be found in Michael (2003) and Masters (2003). Predictions of human implant trials in the 1990s were not that far-fetched after all. At its face value, the idea seems harmless enough- an implant the size of a point on a ballpoint pen is inserted into the subdermal layer of the skin, and only used for identification purposes. A remote database that stores more specific information about the individual is then queried once identification has been determined. The invention has the potential to be a life-saving device and could be used as a complementary component in any location-based system. Yet a greater amount of discussion at all levels of the community is required before the application becomes widely adopted. For an article surrounding privacy concerns posted by VeriChip on their very own web site, see Lade (2007). Interestingly PETNET in Canada promoted the idea of the “microchip as a guardian angel” (Anitech, 1999).

As RFID companies jostle for market share, strategic mergers and acquisitions between key players in complementary technologies continue to take place. For example, Applied Digital Solutions (ADS) acquired the Destron Fearing company in 2000 for 130 million US dollars. Applied Digital Solutions’ main product is the Digital Angel. By acquiring Destron Fearing, ADS now own patents on implanted transmitter technology given Destron Fearing specialized in implanted animal tracking systems (Cochrane, N., 2001, pp. 1-4). While ADS originally denied it was going to use similar technology on humans, within two years of acquiring Destron Fearing it launched a human-centric RFID system. Some organizations like Trovan had dealer agreements that “…prohibited placing a chip under human skin” (Lange, 1997, p. 1) but for the greater part today, most companies have abandoned such statements.

Applied Digital Solutions was just one company that pioneered efforts focused on providing human chip implant services as far back as 2002/03. ADS market their VeriChip solution to people who would like to use it for emergency situations. Shortly after ADS announced the Digital Angel product, Gossett (2002) reported that the Verichip manufacturer was plagued by multiple law suits. The controversy surrounding the Verichip was manifold. First, the FDA launched an investigation into whether the product had been misrepresented; four class-action lawsuits were filed on behalf of shareholders. Second, the company was plagued by auditors, the NASDAQ threatening to de-list the Florida-based company. ADS also announced prematurely certain technical solutions instead of reporting on the real news. Following the premature announcement shares of Digital Angel and ADS rose by 10 percent. Yet the company continues to operate and attract attention. To some degree the organization has now seemingly stabilized, although news breaking of a cancer-related health risk to rats that trialed the original device, sent VeriChip shares plummeting (Morrissey, 2008).

Before microchip implants for humans became commercially viable, wristbands were introduced that contained RFID tags. Among the first companies to launch these wristbands for human monitoring purposes was Sensormatic (Figure 3). They launched a child safety marketing service called SafeKids™, targeting childcare centers especially (Saad & Ahamed, 2007). “The anti-theft tags are embedded in wristbands placed on children upon entering the childcare centre. Security cameras also beam images to monitors located throughout the store” (Sensormatic, 1999). At about the same time that Sensormatic released its product Olivetti marketed the “tot tracker”. Olivetti’s technology was a device placed in the child’s backpack instead of a wristband device (WISC, 1998). Other niche companies getting on board include ParentNet and Simplex Knowledge Company (Time Digital, 1997, p. 5). Many observers tracking the evolution of microchip applications believe that the wristbands were really de facto trials for the chip implants which were launched at the turn of the century. Comparing Olivetti’s Active Badge product solution for health (Puchner, 1994, p. 26) with the “tot tracker” gives an indication of the RFID trajectory.

In 2003, DARPA awarded Eagle Eye Technologies “…a contract to build a bracelet-sized mobile terminal designed for compatibility with existing satellite communication systems. The contract is overseen by the U.S. Army Space and Strategic Defense Command at Hunstville, Alabama. Suggested uses, according to Eagle Eye, include “tracking Alzheimer’s patients, children, executives, probationers and parolees, and military personnel- a market that could conceivably encompass the world’s entire populace in just a few decades” (Lange 1997, p. 2). Compare the idea of “electronic jails” (Goldsmith, 1996, p. 32) with “future smart homes” and how they will be advantageous to the elderly and young children (OOMO 2002, pp. 2-5; ISTSEC, 2003). With RFID devices or company names like Biomark, BioWare, BRANDERS, MARC, Soul Catcher, Digital Angel, Therion Corporation, it is not surprising that some religious groups and civil libertarians among others are very concerned and not at all amused with such metaphors.


Advantages and Disadvantages of RFID

The characteristics of RFID technology described above differentiate them from other automatic identification technologies (Hamilton, Michael & Wamba, 2009). One of the main physical advantages of RFID technology is that tags, unlike barcodes do not require line of sight to be read and multiple tags can be read simultaneously (Jones, Clarke-Hill, Shears, Comfort, & Hillier, 2004). A field test carried out by UK retailer Marks and Spencer tagged 3.5 million bins and recorded that it took just 3 minutes to read 25 trays when it used to take 17.4 minutes using barcodes, an 83% reduction in reading time for each bin. RFID systems are unaffected by dust, moisture, oils, coolants, cuttings, gases. In addition to this RFID tags can operate in extreme temperatures and last for longer periods, in some cases longer than the items they are attached to (Michael & McCathie, 2005).  RFID tags and systems are also characterized by having a greater data density and data quantity than traditional automatic identification technologies in the form of barcodes. This allows RFID tags to carry unique serial numbers more easily than a barcode, which would require a long symbol or a two-dimensional variant, which is difficult to scan and fit into available space. A final major advantage of RFID systems is that they capture data in real time. Capturing data in real time allows organizations to improve data quality, as the information captured is more timely and accurate. All these advantages detailed have the potential to improve operations within organizations.

Studies and literature reveal that due to RFID’s novelty in commercial and manufacturing applications, a number of challenges have created concerns about the feasibility of its implementation. The majority of problems that have been encountered when implementing RFID are technical and hardware issues (Albano & Engels, 2002). Issues have been raised such as the reliability of RFID tag reads.  It has been discovered that when a tag is oriented perpendicular to a reader it is difficult to read it. Michael and McCathie (2005) state that radio waves can be absorbed by moisture in the immediate environment. Radio waves can be hidden, distorted or reflected by metal and the noise from electric motors and that fluorescent lights can also interfere with RFID communications.

In the past the cost of RFID technology has had an impact on its uptake as tags were considered to be too expensive, especially for item-level tagging. However the cost per tag continues to fall. The absence of global standards is another major problem of RFID as they are still developing through the formation of the EPC global network. To date systems have utilized multiple standards restricting interoperability (Lefebvre, Lefebvre, Bendavid, et. al., 2006).  Organizations that implement RFID systems must also review the information technology infrastructure they have in place, as a copious amount of real-time data is captured by these systems. The final challenge of RFID relates to privacy concerns. As RFID is used to track items, privacy activists are concerned about the use of technology on retail items such as clothes which could allow retailers to send and receive information after items have been purchased (Albrecht & McIntyre, 2005). Privacy concerns, like all the other issues identified in this section, require more attention for RFID to become widespread in the commercial and manufacturing industries.




RFID tags and transponders can be used for a variety of applications (Micron, 1999). Micron Communications has the ability to apply RFID to a plethora of applications including: retail automated fuelling, fleet management, container tracking, access control, laundry automation, beef/cattle tracking and government/ military asset tracking. Its RFID products come in a range of tags, badges and transponders. Texas Instruments is another RFID vendor (TI, 1998) that has applied RFID even to vehicle tracking (Ollivier, 1993, pp. 8/1-8/8) and hazardous materials (Hind, 1994, pp. 215-227). RFID can be used to identify humans, animals, places and things. For an introduction into the use of RFID for humancentric applications see Amelia Masters (2003) undergraduate honors thesis. The principal conclusion of Masters’ (2003, p. 97) research is that “humancentric applications of RFID are incrementally being built on the foundations of non-humancentric commercial and animal applications. In the current state of humancentric development, stand-alone applications exist for control, convenience and care purposes, but with control being the dominant context.” For a discussion on the security and privacy of RFID with relation to biomedical applications see a detailed study by Stuart, Moh and Moh (2008).

Some of the humancentric applications considered in this work include personal identification, location based services (Moen & Jelle, 2007), enforcement, banking, medical and monitoring (Wu, Kuo & Liu, 2005). Perhaps what brought a great deal of attention to RFID early on was its use for identifying pets. A local Australian council pamphlet for the municipality of Kiama, NSW, stated: “[a]fter 1 July 1999 we must permanently identify and register any puppy or new dog. We have three years to transfer older dogs from annual registration to the new lifetime system… Also from 1 July 1999 all cat owners must identify their cat either by collar and tag or by microchip” (Local Government, 1998, p. 3). In most major cities it is now a requirement to implant pets with microchip. In the City of Toronto, there are microchip by-laws for pets like dogs and cats (Anitech, 1999). License fees vary depending on the length of the license (annual versus lifetime). In some cities penalties apply for non-compliance (e.g. Indianapolic, Ind., Albuquerque, N.M., and Dade County, Florida). In terms of “things”, retail products have now begun to be tagged (Roussos, 2006), mostly high-value items which warrant the cost of the tag so that they are not subject to theft (Huber & Michael, 2007). RFID proof of concepts based on the electronic product code, are also being considered for application throughout the retail supply chain (Wamba, Lefebvre & Lefebvre, 2006; Bendavid, Wamba & Lefebvre, 2006; Neiderman et al., 2007).

In summary, consider the following RFID product innovations outlined by Schwind (1990, pp. 1-20), which are still representative of the vast opportunities for RFID today:

“- people, livestock, laboratory animals, fish, and many other live species fit the animal category…

- livestock can be coded with a collar and code tag that could be used to record their movements and allot feed or access to it…

- laboratory mice all look alike but an injectable code transponder serializes each to permit sorting… and to accurately record experiments

- place or positions are important to many operations. Guided vehicles can use RFID to locate pick-up and drop-off points

- place or position can be identified as a check, demarcation, action or identification point.”

Of course the applications are not limited to these alone. ‘Electronic jails’, pet microchipping, studies in animal migration, monitoring postal system efficiency, car immobilizers, electronic article surveillance (EAS), electronic asset tracking (Min et al., 2007), information management (Erkayhan, 2007), gun control, tracking athletes during marathons and triathlons, paging doctors and other hospital staff, visitor guidance, patient retinal and cochlear implants, toll tagging (Kovavisaruch & Suntharasaj, 2007) and lot access (Pala & Inanc, 2007), automatic phone re-direction, lighting and climate quality control, alarms and safety can all be implemented using RFID tags and transponders. The greatest impact RFID transponders have made is in industrial automation.


Case 1: Animal Tracking and Monitoring

Transponders are excellent mechanisms to identify and keep track of animals especially in closed systems (Finkenzeller, 1999, pp. 245-253). Among the key attributes of RFID are permanency, inexpensiveness, ease of application and legibility at a distance (Geers et al., 1997, p. 25). Traditional animal ID techniques “[f]or mammals are: eartagging, ear notching, tattoos, freeze branding, horn branding and the use of natural marks. For identification of birds also leg banding, patagial tags, flipper bands and underwing tattooing have been used. Snakes, lizards and other reptiles often carry individually distinctive scale patterns, which can be photographed or sketched for permanent record” (Geers et al., 1997, p. 70). Traditional methods of identifying animals are considered inefficient when compared to transponder implant technology. “First, tags can be damaged, lost or tampered with which means data integrity is limited. Second, the information from the tag must be manually entered into the information system, leaving the barn door open for errors. Tattooing horse, cow and dog lips provides positive identification but it requires manual inspection and verification” (Scan Journal, 1990, pp. 4-9).

An example of a transponder that has been developed for the purpose of identifying animals is the Destron electronic ID (Electronic ID, 1997; Destron, 1998). The electronic ID can be injected into an animal and the device remains embedded in the animal for life. Anytime the microchip is scanned by the correct reader, it provides the animal’s unique ID code. Other transponder systems include: TROVAN, TIRIS, AVID, Biomark and TX1400L (Hughes Identification Devices). Such transponders are being used to positively identify animals in field research, pet theft and loss, zoological parks (Zulich, 1998, p. 1) monitoring endangered species, tracking wild animal numbers (Stonehouse, 1978), breeding programs, quarantine (Scan Journal, 1990, pp. 4-10), livestock management schemes and industrial husbandry systems (Geers et al., 1997, p. xiv). Thus far most commonly implanted animals include the common household pets (dogs, cats and birds), common livestock (cows, sheep and pigs), animals used for experimental research (mice and monkeys), and pests (rabbits) that need to be continually tracked to control numbers (figure 4).

The use of tags and transponders in livestock farm management has revolutionized the way farmers work (Trevarthen & Michael, 2007). The farm database has become an integral part of successful farm management practice. While it was once difficult for the farmer to monitor his/her livestock because of the sheer number of animals kept, transponders have made tracking livestock easier. It is not uncommon for farmers to use their computers to: “…follow-up of premiums, milk-record control, tracing back of transit and disease prevention, progeny testing and herdbook administration, electronic feeding stations, automatic gating in group housing facilities, accountability to markets and slaughterhouses, animal health control, public health control, animal welfare surveillance, prevention of fraud, tracing back of stolen stock, facilitating trade, central database facilities” (Geers et al., 1997, p. 39).

Allflex (Cumbria, United Kingdom), together with Oxley Systems (Grange over Sands, United Kingdom) are just two companies that have been promoting RFID tags as a management tool for agribusiness co-use. The farmer has the ability to centralize all his operations whether it be in the prevention of disease in herds, feed-control or in meeting production goals. The new generation of transponders will be even more powerful with specific sensors to monitor the physiological status of the each animal, “…early warning of diseases, monitoring of oestrus, welfare and all aspects related to integrated quality control” (Geers et al., 1997, p. 39).  Regulations have also meant the mandatory identification of animals, especially in Europe, has acted to increase the adoption of RFID tags and transponders.

In the U.S. in 1996, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) revised its regulatory policy regarding electronic IDs for animals, stipulating in its definition that electronic identification equated to RFID transponders. In the CVM Update (17/01/96), the importance of removing the RFID transponder in the slaughter process of animals was highlighted and that adequate precautions should be taken for trimmed parts (that may contain the device) not be given to animals as feed (Kryo, 1996). Geers et al. (1997, p. 37) explain the potential problems more precisely with respect to the recovery of the transponders in the slaughter process. “Transponders injected in the head of the animal do not follow the carcass through the slaughterline when the head is cut off... All transponders should be recovered in the slaughterhouse before the carcasses are released for further processing. Recovery procedures should not damage the carcass… and this can be avoided when transponders have been injected properly.”

The 1992 EU Council Directive 92/102/EC stated: “[a]nimals for intra-Union trade must be identified in accordance with the requirements of the Community rules and be registered in such a way that the original or transit holding, center or organization can be traced” (quoted in Geers 1996, p. 29f). One of the earliest animal tracking major trials in Europe, was known as IDEA (Identification Electronique des Animaux). The trial consists of approximately 500000 cattle from six European countries including France and Germany. In the future, breakthroughs in DNA may allow the tracking of meat even to the kitchen table (Unger, 1994). Look (1998, p. 8) also believes that “the full history of every piece of beef will appear on the package label for consumers to read” in the future. “Ever since the possibility was raised of a link between the cattle disease BSE and a new variant of a similar disorder in humans (Creutzfeld-Jakob disease), the word “traceability” has become a mantra of the meat industry. A statement last year from the European Parliament put it this way: “The necessary security for consumers requires both the identification and registration of bovine animals and labeling of beef... To achieve this, the [European] Commission has outlined a standard format for the national databases to follow. The format includes an alphanumeric code, the first two letters being the alpha-2 country code (as set out in Decision 93/317/EEC), followed by a numeric code of not more than 12 characters, thus making it possible to identify each animal individually...”  (Look, 1998, pp. 1-2). Refer also to Harrop and Napier (2006) who discuss food and livestock traceability.


Traditional Manual Identification for Animals

Leather or nylon collars with metal tags (upon which contact details can be engraved) are still very popular methods of identification for pets such as dogs and cats. The Ventura County Animal Regulation (Ventura, 2001) still encourages traditional methods of pet identification to RFID implants: “[t]his is a great supplement to identification tags, but it is not a substitute! If someone without an Infopet scanner finds your animal, they will not be able to trace it back to you unless it has current ID tags.” The Veterinary Information Network and Pet Care Forum suggest that the tag includes as much information as possible. The downside of this type of tag is that it can be removed by anybody, be uncomfortable for the pet or be damaged. A more innovative idea that has received some attention is the “Lost and Finder Owner Notification System” which makes use of ID tags and a dedicated voicemail box. The Internet has become another medium of communication to post messages about lost pets, however this is fairly inefficient.

For farm animals, the Destron Fearing Corporation has introduced the Fearing Duflex brand of ear tags, for visible identification only. The ear tags are made out of polyurethane and can withstand environmental conditions over long periods of time. Hot-stamped numbers on metal tags and ink jet bar code labels can also be produced. Kryo Kinetics Associates, Incorporated specialize in horse identification and offer a number of different solutions other than microchipping. One example of this is freeze marks using the International Angle System, developed by Dr Keith Farrell in Washington University in the 1960s. Freeze marks are recognized internationally and can be used in a court of law. This technique shows a visible mark rather than the microchipping technique and may be more of a deterrent to thieves. Every animal is marked with symbols that are protected by international copyright and a matching laminated ID card for each horse is given to the owner. “The marking site, always on the neck, is clipped and cleaned and... the mark is applied with a cold iron, the horse feels little more than pressure”. Ownership brands are another technique but this presupposes that the brand is unique and has passed the registration process with the appropriate authorities. It can turn out to be an expensive practice though, as registrations have to be entered for different states.

Like brands, tattoos can also be applied by almost anyone. As opposed to freeze marks, tattoos can be altered, they are often hard to read and there is no single registry. Having said that tattoos have shortcomings the American Pet Association (APA) was still supportive of the manual technique in 1998 considering it to be the “best form of permanent identification… The micro chip implant, although an interesting, high tech idea, is not a pet identification solution… The American Pet Association’s answer… is simple, effective and reliable. All pets registered through the APA’s VIP program are tagged and tattooed with an ID number that begins with the trademarked letters “APA”. It is a simple solution for shelters; if a pet is tattooed with the “APA” letter, they need only to call the APA’s 800 number” (APA, 1998; Mieszkowski, 2000).

Vetinfonet (1998) also agree with APA that “…the most reliable form of identification still remains a collar and ID tag”. In Australia, Pawprint Pet ID Tags by Silver Roo have also made their debut working on the same principles as the APA VIP program but instead of a numbered tag, Silver Roo manufacture a choice of 12 types of tags. Animals, especially small insects like bees, can also be bar coded (LaMoreaux, 1995, pp. 48-49). Kryo also highlights blood typing and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing. Two companies that specialize in DNA-based profiles for animals are Therion Corporation and Zoogen Incorporated. The latter was founded by Dr Joy Halverson, a veterinarian. “DNA pawprints” are taken of the animal’s genotype (genetic pattern) and it is digitally analyzed by a computer. The method is so accurate that it can virtually identify any dog in the world with a zero error rate. The company which began in 1989 prides itself on not only being able to identify a dog but offer more information to owners about the parentage and pedigree of the animal, bloodline uniformity etc.


Case 2: Human Security and Monitoring

Some employers require their staff to wear RFID tags in a visible location for identification purposes and for access control (Kitsz, 1990, pp. 3-37) (figure 5). A company’s security policy may stipulate that staff badges be secured onto clothing or employees must wear tags that are woven into their uniforms. This type of integration of computers into clothing (i.e. unobtrusive wearable computers) is a design philosophy that Steve Mann (1987) has named ‘eudemonic computing’, after a group of physicists known as the Eudemons. There are a wide variety of wearable tags available today. The rugged smart label developed by Gemplus called the GemWave Stamp and Olivetti’s “active badge” are two examples (Pountain, 1993, p. 58; Want et al., 1992, pp. 91-102). The Olivetti tag is able to “localize each staff member as he or she moves through the premises... It is possible to automatically re-route telephone calls to the extension nearest an individual” (Puchner, 1994, p. 26). “Recent developments in hardware are allowing us to capture automatically events in our working lives. For example the Olivetti active badge, a small ‘wearable’ device, allows us to record which room of a building we are in. If our colleagues wear badges too, it is possible to record who we were with, and if badges are attached to equipment it is possible to record what equipment we are close to” (Brown, 1995, p. 6/1). Martin (1995, pp. 306-309) describes another identification, location and tracking system that he has called WatchIt™ that uses IR/RF (infrared/ radio-frequency) principles.

Whereas employers want to know who is inside their premises, there are some applications that want to know who has trespassed outside a certain zone. The concept of “electronic jails” for low-risk offenders is starting to be considered more seriously. Sweden and Australia have implemented this concept and there are trials taking place in the U.K., U.S., Netherlands and Canada. Whilst tagging low-risk offenders is not popular in many countries it is far more economical than the conventional jail. Since 1994 in Sweden: “...certain offenders in six districts have opted out of serving time, choosing instead to be tagged by an electronic anklet and follow a strict timetable set by the probation service... about 700 people have taken part in the Swedish scheme, open to people sentenced to two months or less” (Goldsmith, 1996, p. 32). Signals are transmitted from the tag of the offender to the host computer several times a minute. All tagged prisoners set off an alarm in a nearby monitoring center if they deviate from their daily routine (Perusco & Michael, 2007).

Numerous applications have been developed to assist individuals who depend on carers for support. This group of persons may consist of newly-born babies, sufferers of mental illness and Alzheimer’s disease, persons with disabilities and the elderly. There are those like Martin Swerdlow, who as a U.K. member of the government’s Foresight Science and Technology Group stated that there would come a time when certain groups in the population would have tags implanted at birth (Woodford, 1993). He believed the idea of a national identity system based on implants was not impossible and highlighted that babies were already electronically tagged at present and nobody was objecting. It is worthwhile then to spend some time looking at a tagging system that prevents babies from being switched at birth or being kidnapped. The South Tyneside Healthcare Trust Trial in the U.K. is an excellent case. Early in 1995, Eagle Tracer installed an electronic tagging system at the hospital using their TIRIS electronic tags and readers from Texas Instruments. Detection aerials were hidden at exit points so that in the event a baby was taken away without authorization, its identity would be checked and the alarm would be raised immediately. The alarm could potentially lock doors, alert the maternity ward staff and security guards. Automatic-ID News (1997) reported: “The TIRIS tags, passive and batteryless transponders, carry a unique security code and are securely attached to even the smallest newborn babies without causing harm or discomfort. The carrier material has been developed in such a way as to prevent the removal by anyone other than a specialist...”

The trial was so successful that the hospital was considering expanding the system to include the children’s ward. The clinical director of obstetrics and gynecology told Automatic-ID News that, “[t]he system ha[d] been very enthusiastically received by the midwives as well as the mums.” Mr Trevor Dean, the 1993 chairman of the Bar Code Committee of Standards Australia said “…it was technologically possible for a baby’s bottom to be tattooed with a bar code… One of the most obvious advantages would be to lessen the likelihood of two babies being swapped accidentally at birth.” The response from the Privacy Commission was to liken this proposition to when the Nazis tattooed people. They noted that going down that kind of path would be dangerous. Weinstein is quoted here as saying: “There will be a short window where the bad guys aren't aware of the technology, but then it will be routine for them to dig around in their victims to see if they're wearing GPS receivers… The overriding issue is do you create a bigger danger to the person than existed in the first place?” (Scheeres, 2002). Recently Olivetti has also marketed its ‘tot tracker’ product which works by placing a tag on your child or in his/her backpack to allow for global tracking via a global positioning system (GPS) (High Tech, 1998, p. 1).

The idea of placing transponders in the human body or implanting microchips in selected body parts like the hand or head are not new. The study of medicine is always pushing technological developments to new frontiers. As it has been well described, “[c]ommercially available implantable telemetry devices can have sensors on board for measuring the following physiological variables: temperature, body activity, heart rate, electrocardiogram, electromyogram, electroencephalogram, blood pressure and different biopotentials. The dimensions of these devices are a few cubic centimeters, and have to be implanted under general anesthesia. In most cases the sensors are wire-connected to the implantable module. The transmission range is dependent on the frequency band selected, and on the available power source. It can vary from a few centimeters to a few kilometers. The operational life time is usually a few months, depending on the battery specifications” (Geers et al., 1997, p. 22). Implantable devices such as pacemakers have been used in humans with heart conditions for years (Banbury, 1997; Ryan et al., 1989, pp. 7.6.1-7.6.4). Once thought radical the device is now commonplace. For a discussion on somatic surveillance see Monahan and Wall (2007).

Scientists have been conducting experiments involving microchips and humans for decades. It is through such research that scientists hope to discover ways to combat blindness, deafness and other disabilities. “A chip implanted on the optic nerve, for example, could correct defective images or simply transmit entire images to the nerve. The notion of putting computers inside the body may be more realistic than it sounds” (Harrison, 1994, p. 13). Examples of these types of studies include the nerve chip research at Stanford University by doctors Kovacs, Hentz and Rosen and the silicon retinal implant research by Edell, Rizzo, Raffel and Wyatt which will be discussed in the following chapter. It is now becoming increasingly public knowledge that there is a concerted effort to fuse the flesh with technology (Davies, 1994). Initially a medical solution, transponder implants are now being considered for emergency services and potentially even a way to reduce fraud. Hewkin was one of the first people to suggest officially, in a respected academic IEE journal, that ‘subminiature read-only tags’ would be injected under human skin using a syringe to reduce problems such as fraud (1989, p. 205). This was probably in response to Dr Daniel Man’s, October 1987 patent regarding a homing device implant designed for humans called ‘Man’s Implanted’. Mechanic (1996, p. 2) reported: “…[t]he human device runs on long-lasting lithium batteries and periodically transmits a signal that would allow authorities to pinpoint a person’s exact location... the batteries... could be replenished twice a year...”

Man’s invention has not been marketed because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have yet to approve the device. For this he will require a substantial amount of cash for miniaturization and regulatory approval (Wells, 1998). But the inventor has received several inquiries from U.S. government agencies and interested companies. The device is perceived by some as being a future 911 advancement, locating kidnapped children or older persons who may become disoriented, useful for soldier tracking and even criminal tracking. The Daily Mail (1997, p. 13) reported that “[s]cientists are testing a revolutionary watch which can be implanted beneath the skin of the wrist… Researchers believe the same technology could be used to create a range of electronic tags for criminals. It could also be adapted to record… blood pressure.” For implantable health applications refer to Eng (2002), Streitfeld (2002) and Murray (2002). Man believes this human tracking device would be voluntary only and that nobody would be forced to use it if they did not want to for reasons of culture, philosophy or religion. In fact, “the surgeon is taken aback by all this talk of Armageddon and by the conspiracy buffs who say the invention could ultimately be used by the government to monitor its citizens” (Mechanic, 1996, p. 5). Man is quoted as saying that he’s only looking at the positive aspects of the implanted device. See also Nortel World (1998, p. 28) in contrast to Kindgom (2003).

In 1994 Bertrand Cambou, director of technology for Motorola’s Semiconductor  Products in Phoenix, predicted that by 2004 all persons would have a microchip implanted in their body to monitor and perhaps even control blood pressure, their heart rate, and cholesterol levels. Harrison reported (1994, p. 13) that: “Cambou has been a part of the miniaturization of microprocessors and the development of wireless communication technologies. Both would have central roles in putting computers inside the human body.” When questioned by Harrison about the effects the technology would have in the body Cambou responded (1994, p. 13): “We are not aware of any current obstacles to the encapsulation and implanting of electronic devices within the body, and the transmission characteristics [of radio frequencies] through the body are well known.”

In 1998, Professor Kevin Warwick (2002) of the University of Reading became the first official person to embed a silicon transponder (23 by 3 millimeter) into his body (arm). The manufacturer of the chip remained anonymous. The surgical procedure only took ten minutes while he was under a local anesthetic (Sanchez-Klein, 1998). The ten-day trial was confined to the boundaries of his university department. Sensors around the department were triggered every time Professor Warwick was in range of a reader, where Warwick is shown holding the transponder in his fingertips and a map of the ground floor of the Cybernetics department with his location information. The chip was limited to acting as a location device but its potential is left to a visionary’s discretion. Professor Warwick reported to Newsbytes (Dennis, 1998): “In five years’ time, we will be able to do chips with all sorts of information on them. They could be used for money transfers, medical records, passports, driving licenses, and loyalty cards. And if they are implanted they are impossible to steal. The potential is enormous.” Angell and Kietzmann (2006) write of the very real possibility that RFID will replace cash altogether.

In a CNN interview with Sanchez-Klein (1998, p. 2) Warwick reflected: “I’m feeling more at one with the computer. It’s as though part of me is missing when I’m not in the building... In my house, I have to open doors and turn on lights. I don’t feel lonely, but I don’t feel complete.” Warwick believes the ultimate goal of the transponder technology is to connect humans more closely with computers and perhaps have a direct connection from the brain to the computer. He told CNN that it was an excellent device to track employees while they were at work, prevent mass murders my keeping track of gun owners and tagging pedophiles to keep them away from schools or child centers. However, it should be noted that Warwick is aware of the big brother issues, negative and sinister side of the technology. In the fight against the SARS outbreak, countries like Singapore were proposing the electronic tagging of citizens using RFID (Michael and Masters, 2006a; 2006b). The tagging is primarily to help stop the spread of the virus and to aid health authorities to locate the root cause of the problem, thus cordoning off infected areas. Logistically it is proving too difficult to track frequent travelers and to gather data manually. One individual who has introduced another dimension to the implant research is RFID implantee, Mr Amal Graafstra (2007). For the opportunities and challenges related to identifying people who bear an implant see Rotter, Daskala and Compano (2008), Foster and Jaegar (2007), and Perakslis and Wolk (2006).


The Importance of the ID Number

Common technologies that are used for human monitoring as opposed primarily to human security include bar code, magnetic-stripe, smart cards and biometrics. For example, in The Roanoke Times, Hammack reported that ‘Bracelets and bar codes track jail inmates.’ Card technologies have been traditionally linked to an ID number (normally 8-15 alphanumeric characters in length); the type of card technology employed is a secondary matter. In the example of government schemes such as social security, taxation and health care a fair amount of off-line monitoring occurs to ensure that citizens are actually being taxed accordingly and receiving the right amount of social benefits. In 1999, Japan began to debate a national ID number scheme, not a national ID card type. Williams (1999) reported: “[a] ten-digit number would enable officials to identify a person’s name, address, sex and date of birth and be used by local and national government agencies in place of differing identification methods used now.”

An interesting pattern emerges when one studies the person number (PN) systems of countries in the world (Lunde et al. ed., 1980, pp. 39-47). They were either developed during WWII or after 1970. The former were created for the purpose of census registers; the latter mainly for the computerization of citizen records. Thus one will find that only the ID numbers instituted after 1970 are truly unique (based on database principles such as a primary key), the other numbers are composed of date of birth, sex and place of birth, with sometimes zero or only one or two check digits. Enter the urgent need for a more sophisticated way of monitoring human activity and governments around the world have done one of two things; either they have issued new ID numbers to all citizens and implemented smart card schemes, or they have kept existing ID numbers and implemented an integrated system- smart cards for transactions and biometrics to verify the cardholder’s identification. Still there are many government schemes around the world that have more than one citizen with exactly the same ID number.

The prospect of human monitoring entering a new level altogether has been made possible by numerous developments in telecommunications. Mobile telephone users can be pinpointed to the coverage area of the mobile base station (BS) that was used to connect their telephone call. Network triangulation can pinpoint an individual’s location to 50-150 meters in accuracy. And if a handset is GPS-enabled, then it can be located up to 15 meters of the recipient. Piece this information together over a period of time and someone could know an awful lot about your movements (K. Michael et al, 2006). Whether somebody cares to do this or not is perhaps not the issue, the information is still available. In the not-to-distant future however GPS devices will become so small and affordable that monitoring and tracking of humans in real-time would be feasible (Werb, 1999, p. 52).

GPS was developed by the U.S. military and has both defense and commercial application. If one is to contemplate the unlimited commercial union between GPS and auto-ID systems, a myriad of location-based applications could be born (Recagno et al., 2001). For example, GPS systems for cars that would enable manual street directories to become obsolete and track car thieves as they make their escape, in addition to safety and security services including emergency response, crash detection, roadside assistance (figure 6) and diagnostics monitoring (Brennan, 1995; CarCom, 2000; Wheatley, 1993). For two Australian studies where people or vehicles were overtly tracked see Iqbal and Lim (2007) and Michael, McNamee, Michael and Tootell (2006) (figure 7). And also there is the ability to track children so that in the case they are kidnapped police know their exact whereabouts; track mentally ill patients who may become lost; monitor criminals who are released and have a long record of crime (Pottorf, 1998). The GIS (geographic information system) makes the visual real-time tracking of people and objects possible. One need only spend some time looking at Google Maps. Distributed systems could display the movement at various levels of details on a map. Large ships and large trucking companies already use this type of technology (Sky Eye Company, 2003).


RFID Today

While RF principles were well-established partway through the 20th century, the modern application of RF for identification and tracking purposes is a recent phenomenon. RFID has promised much and delivered only a fraction. This is not to say that it does not have a bright future ahead of it- the technology itself can be applied in a number of very advanced ways, with the potential to supersede previous auto-ID technologies in stealth and capability. However, the obstacles that plague it will not go away overnight. Of the academic literature that has been written about RFID the most recent has been on how to reconcile privacy and security issues, especially in the retail sector where RFID could act to revolutionize how people shop and how companies purchase and sell their products. Alfonsi (2004), Lee and Kim (2006), Rieback, Crispo and Tanenbaum (2006) and Perusco, Michael and Michael (2006) have all written on the RFID privacy debate pertaining especially to consumers. Perakslis & Wolk (2006) have gone one step further to concentrate on the use of RFID transponders for national security reasons such as national ID. These papers all point to the current sticking point of RFID- the technology may have a great number of benefits and a convincing business value proposition but it is clouded with too many privacy issues corresponding to end-user resistance in adoption.

By far the biggest proposed application of RFID is in the retail sector in the implementation of the electronic product code, across entire supply chains. “Sometime between now and 2010, the internet is poised to reach beyond virtual space and take root in the physical world. According to many futurist thinkers, almost every object you can see around you carries the possibility of being connected to the internet. This means that your domestic appliances, your clothes, your books and your car may one day be assigned a unique IP address, just as both computers and web pages are assigned them today, to enable them to talk to each other” (Dodson, 2009). While these supply chains may be beneficial for large players like the United States Department of Defense (DoD), they may be less useful for local supermarket chains, despite the fact that companies like WalMart and Proctor and Gamble have begun extensive RFID trials (Coltman, Gadh, Michael, 2008). The sticking point seems to be one surrounding control- who has it, who can apply it, and what are the consequences. More to the point, RFID tags and transponders have yet to reach economies of scale, and cost is a major deterrent at the present time. Who will pay for the new infrastructure across the entire supply chain, and who will receive the greatest benefit from its introduction. There may well be a cost-benefit stakeholder mismatch which has not encouraged individual players to become involved for fear of bearing the majority of the start-up costs with little return on investment.



RFID has been responsible for a great leap in mindset. While previous auto-ID technologies have been wearable or contactless in nature, RFID is the only auto-ID technology to also be “implantable”. In addition, the implants are not just for animals but for people as well. At the heart of any system are people. People have direct links to the world around them- whether they be living or nonliving things. People have relationships- to other people, to animals, to items. The Auto-ID Center’s conceptualization of an “Internet of Things”, are just these meshed and complex links and relationships taking full life in IP address space – version 6 (IPv6). RFID can personalize all these links in permutations of personal area networks (PANs) and local area networks (LANs), dependent on the context. The question is whether or not people wish to take this seemingly next great leap forward, and what this leap will mean in “real” terms. While purchasing goods which have an RFID tag on them can be considered relatively harmless (beyond the potential for data to be mined by third parties etc), what of the implanting of people with RFID transponders for health applications? There is a stark difference here- technology with which a transaction is facilitated versus technology with which we intimately interact with which is an extension of the human body. For now, standards bodies like GS1 and EAN are investing a lot of resources into seeing the RFID-retail dream become a reality but at the same time the number of niche RFID applications being introduced into the market are rising exponentially- each more radical than the one before.



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