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Whether we realize it or not, radio the objects to be managed, and operate demodulated using a homodyne receiver,

frequency identification (RFID) is an automatically. The more complex and decoded and output as digital infor-
integral part of our life. RFID increases devices (often called readers, interroga- mation that contains the data stored in the
productivity and convenience. RFID is tors, beacons) are more capable and are tag. To send data from the reader to the
used for hundreds, if not thousands, of usually connected to a host computer or tag, the reader amplitude modulates its
applications such as preventing theft of network. Radio frequencies from 100 transmitted radio signal. This modulated
automobiles and merchandise; collect- kHz to 10 GHz have been used. signal is received by the tag and detected
ing tolls without stopping; managing The tags are usually built using CMOS with a diode. The data can be used to
traffic; gaining entrance to buildings; circuitry while other technologies can be control operation of the tag, or the tag can
automating parking; controlling access used such as surface acoustic wave (SAW) store the data. A simple diode detector
of vehicles to gated communities, cor- devices or tuned resonators. Tags can be allows the detection circuitry in the tag to
porate campuses and airports; dispens- powered by a battery or by rectification of be simple and consume little power.
ing goods; providing ski lift access; the radio signal sent by the reader. Tags Mankind’s use and understanding of
electricity, magnetism, and electromag-
netics in very early times was limited to
his eyesight, observation of electrostatic
The history of RFID discharge (don’t stand under a large tree
during a lightning storm), and the

JEREMY LANDT

©1998 CORBIS CORP.


tracking library books;
buying hamburgers; and
the growing opportunity
to track a wealth of assets in supply can send data to the reader by changing magnetic properties of lodestones. Early
chain management. RFID technology is the loading of the tag antenna in a coded applications probably included making
also being pressed into service for use manner or by generating, modulating, and light with fire, use of mirrors for signal-
in U.S. Homeland Security with applica- transmitting a radio signal. A variety of ing, and use of lodestones for navigation.
tions such as securing border crossings modulation and coding techniques have Scientific understanding progressed
and intermodal container shipments been used. RFID systems can be read- very slowly until about the 1600s. From
while expediting low-risk activities. only (data is transferred only in one direc- the 1600s to 1800s there was an explo-
RFID is a term coined for short-range tion, from the tag to the reader) or read- sion of observational knowledge of elec-
radio technology used to communicate write (two-way communication). tricity, magnetism, and optics accompa-
mainly digital information between a sta- A typical RFID system can use the nied by a growing base of mathematical-
tionary location and a movable object or principle of modulated backscatter (see ly related observations. The 1800s
between movable objects. A variety of Fig. 1). In this type of RFID system, to marked the beginning of the fundamen-
radio frequencies and techniques are transfer data from the tag to the reader, tal understanding of electromagnetic
used in RFID systems. RFID is generally the reader sends an unmodulated signal energy. In 1846, English experimentalist
characterized by use of simple devices to the tag. The tag reads its internal mem- Michael Faraday proposed that both light
on one end of the link and more com- ory of stored data and changes the load- and radio waves are a form of electro-
plex devices on the other end of the ing on the tag antenna in a coded manner magnetic energy. In 1864, Scottish physi-
link. The simple devices (often called corresponding to the stored data. The sig- cist James Clerk Maxwell published his
tags or transponders) are small and inex- nal reflected from the tag is thus modulat- theory on electromagnetics. In 1887,
pensive, can be deployed economically ed with this coded information. This mod- German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz
in very large numbers, are attached to ulated signal is received by the reader, confirmed Maxwell’s electromagnetic

8 0278-6648/05/$20.00 © 2005 IEEE IEEE POTENTIALS


theory and produced and studied elec- range transponder systems RF
tromagnetic waves (radio waves). Hertz of “identification, friend, or Generator
is credited as the first to transmit and foe” (IFF) for aircraft. Variable
Load
receive radio waves, and his demonstra- Developments of the 1950s
tions were followed quickly by Aleksan- include such works as D.B. Mixer
dr Popov in Russia. Harris’s “Radio transmission ID
Filter/ Encoder
In 1896, Guglielmo Marconi demon- systems with modulatable AMP
strated the first successful transmission of passive responder.” The
radiotelegraphy across the Atlantic, and wheels of RFID develop- Oscillator
the world would never be the same. ment were turning. ID Decoder

Forward to 20th century RFID becomes reality Display


In 1906, Ernst F.W. Alexanderson The 1960s were the pre-
demonstrated the first continuous wave lude to the RFID explosion Fig. 1 Functional blocks for reading data from a backscatter
(CW) radio generation and transmission of the 1970s. R.F. Harring- RFID tag. The reader is on the left, and the tag is on the right.
of radio signals. This achievement marks ton studied the electromag-
the beginning of modern radio communi- netic theory related to RFID in his ning of practical, completely passive
cation, where all aspects of radio waves papers including “Theory of Loaded tags with an operational range of tens of
are controlled. The early 20th century Scatterers” in 1964. Inventors were busy meters. Large companies were also
was considered the birth of radar. The with RFID-related inventions such as developing RFID technology, such as
work in radar during World War II was as Robert Richardson’s “Remotely activated Raytheon’s Raytag in 1973 and Richard
significant a technical development as the radio frequency powered devices,” and Klensch of RCA developing an electron-
Manhattan Project. Radar sends out radio J. H. Vogelman’s “Passive data transmis- ic identification system in 1975.
waves for detecting and locating an sion techniques utilizing radar echoes.” The Port Authority of New York and
object by the reflection of the radio Commercial activities were beginning New Jersey was also testing systems
waves. This reflection can determine the in the 1960s. Sensormatic and Checkpoint built by General Electric, Westinghouse,
position and speed of an object. Radar’s were founded in the late 1960s. These Philips, and Glenayre. Results were
significance was quickly understood by companies, with others such as Knogo, favorable, but the first commercially
the military, so many of the early devel- developed electronic article surveillance successful transportation application of
opments were shrouded in secrecy. (EAS) equipment to counter the theft of RFID, electronic toll collection, was not
Since one form of RFID is the combi- merchandise. These types of systems are yet ready for prime time.
nation of radio broadcast technology and often use 1-b tags; only the presence or The 1970s were characterized primari-
radar, it is not unexpected that the con- absence of a tag could be detected, but ly by developmental work. Intended
vergence of these two radio disciplines the tags could be made inexpensively applications were for animal tracking,
and the thoughts of RFID occurred on and provided effective antitheft measures. vehicle tracking, and factory automation.
the heels of the development of radar. These types of systems used either micro- Examples of animal tagging efforts were
wave (generation of harmonics using a the microwave systems at Los Alamos
Genesis of an idea semiconductor) or inductive (resonant cir- and Identronix and the inductive systems
An early, if not the first, work explor- cuits) technology. EAS is arguably the first in Europe. Interest in animal tagging was
ing RFID is the landmark paper by Harry and most widespread commercial use of high in Europe. Alfa Laval, Nedap, and
Stockman, “Communication by Means of RFID. Tags containing multiple bits were others were developing RFID systems.
Reflected Power,” published in 1948. generally experimental in nature and Transportation efforts included work at
Stockman stated “Evidently, considerable were built with discrete components. Los Alamos and by the International
research and development work has to While single-bit EAS tags were small, Bridge Turnpike and Tunnel Association
be done before the remaining basic multibit tags were the size of a loaf of (IBTTA) and the United States Federal
problems in reflected-power communica- bread, constrained in size by the dictates Highway Administration. The latter two
tion are solved, and before the field of of the circuitry. sponsored a conference in 1973 that con-
useful applications is explored.” In the 1970s developers, inventors, cluded there was no national interest in
Thirty years would pass before companies, academic institutions, and developing a standard for electronic vehi-
Stockman’s vision would reach fruition. government laboratories were actively cle identification. This is an important
Other developments were needed: the working on RFID, and notable advances decision since it would permit a variety of
transistor, the integrated circuit, the were being realized at research labora- systems to develop, which was good,
microprocessor, development of com- tories and academic institutions such as because RFID technology was in its infan-
munication networks, and changes in Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, North- cy. Research efforts continued as well. R.J.
ways of doing business. The success of western University, and the Microwave King authored a book about microwave
RFID would have to wait a while. Institute Foundation in Sweden. An homodyne techniques in 1978. This book
Much has happened in the 57 years early and important development was is an early compendium of theory and
since Stockman’s work. The 1950s were the Los Alamos work that was presented practice used in backscatter RFID systems.
an era of exploration of RFID techniques by Alfred Koelle, Steven Depp, and Tag technology had improved with
following technical developments in Robert Freyman, “Short-Range Radio- reductions in size and improvements in
radio and radar in the 1930s and 1940s. Telemetry for Electronic Identification functionality. The key to these advance-
Several technologies related to RFID Using Modulated Backscatter,” in 1975. ments was the use of low-voltage, low-
were being explored such as the long- This development signaled the begin- power CMOS logic circuits. Tag memory

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2005 9
utilized switches or wire bonds and had points at highway speeds, unimpeded Interest was also keen for RFID
improved with use of fusible link diode by a toll plaza or barriers and with applications in Europe during the 1990s.
arrays by the end of the decade. video cameras for enforcement. The Both microwave and inductive technolo-
The 1980s became the decade for full first combined toll collection and traffic gies were finding use for toll collection,
implementation of RFID technology, management system was installed in access control, and a wide variety of
though interests developed somewhat the Houston area by the Harris County other applications in commerce.
differently in various parts of the world. Toll Road Authority in 1992. Also a A new effort underway was the
The greatest interests in the United first was the system installed on the development of the Texas Instruments
States were for transportation, personnel Kansas turnpike using readers that (TI) TIRIS system, used in many auto-
access, and, to a lesser extent, animals. could also operate with the different- mobiles for control of the starting of the
In Europe, the greatest interests were for protocol tags of their neighbor to the vehicle engine. The TIRIS system (and
short-range systems for animals and south, Oklahoma. Georgia would fol- others such as from Mikron, now a part
industrial and business applications, low, upgrading their equipment with of Philips) developed new applications
though toll roads in Italy, France, Spain, readers that could communicate with for dispensing fuel, gaming chips, ski
Portugal, and Norway were equipped tags using a new protocol as well as passes, and vehicle access.
with RFID. A key to the rapid expansion their existing tags. In fact, these two Additional companies in Europe were
of RFID applications was the develop- installations were the first to imple- becoming active in the RFID race as well
ment of the personal computer (PC) that ment a multiprotocol capability in elec- with developments including Microdesign,
allowed convenient and economical col- tronic toll collection applications. CGA, Alcatel, Bosch and the Philips spin-
lection and management of data from In the northeastern United States, offs of Combitech, Baumer, and Tagmas-
RFID systems. seven regional toll agencies formed the ter. A pan-European standard was needed
In the Americas, the Association of E-Z Pass Interagency Group (IAG) in for tolling applications in Europe, and
American Railroads and the Container 1990 to develop a regionally compatible many of these companies (and others)
Handling Cooperative Program were electronic toll collection system. This were at work on the CEN standard for
active with RFID initiatives. Tests of system is the model for using a single electronic tolling.
RFID for collecting tolls had been going tag and single billing account per vehi- Tolling and rail applications were
on for many years, and the first commer- cle to access highways and bridges of also appearing in many countries includ-
cial application began in Europe in 1987 several toll authorities. ing Australia, China, Hong Kong, Philip-
in Norway and was followed quickly in pines, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada,
the United States by the Dallas North Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand,
Turnpike in 1989. Also during this time, South Korea, South Africa, and Europe.
the Port Authority of New York and With the success of electronic toll col-
New Jersey began commercial operation lection, other advancements followed
of RFID for buses going through the Lin- such as the first multiple use of tags
coln Tunnel. RFID was finding a home across different business segments. Now,
with electronic toll collection, and new a single tag (with dual or single billing
players were arriving daily. (a) accounts) could be used for electronic
Tags were now being built using toll collection, parking lot access and
custom CMOS integrated circuits com- fare collection, gated community access,
bined with discrete components for and campus access. In the Dallas–Ft.
microwave tags. EEPROM became the Worth metroplex, a first was achieved
nonvolatile memory of choice, permit- when a single TollTag on a vehicle
ting the large-scale manufacture of iden- could be used to pay tolls on the North
tical tags that could be individualized Dallas Tollway, for access and parking
through programming. These advance- (b) payment at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Interna-
ments lead to further reductions in the tional Airport, the nearby Love Field,
size of tags and increase in functionality and several downtown parking garages
(see Fig. 2). The constraint of required as well as access to gated communities
antenna size was now becoming impor- and business campuses.
tant in determining the size of tags. Research and development didn’t slow
down during the 1990s with new techno-
The 1990s (c) logical developments expanding the func-
The 1990s were a significant decade tionality of RFID. For the first time, useful
for RFID since it saw the wide scale Fig. 2 Evolution of RFID tags compared in microwave Schottky diodes were fabricat-
deployment of electronic toll collection size to a penny. (a) A 12-b read-only tag ed on a regular CMOS integrated circuit.
built using CMOS logic chips and hybrid
in the United States and the installation This development permitted the construc-
thick film, circa 1976. Circuitry covers half
of over 3 million RFID tags on rail cars of tag area. (b) A 128-b read-only tag built tion of microwave RFID tags that con-
in North America. Important deploy- using a custom CMOS integrated circuit tained only a single integrated circuit, a
ments included several innovations in with off-chip components, circa 1987. capability previously limited to inductive-
electronic tolling. The world’s first Circuitry covers a quarter of tag area. (c) A ly coupled RFID transponders. Books
1024-b read-write tag built using a single
open highway electronic tolling system custom CMOS integrated circuit, circa began to appear devoted specifically to
opened in Oklahoma in 1991, where 1999. Circuitry covers an insignificant RFID technology. Klaus Finkenzeller
vehicles could pass toll collection portion of the tag area. wrote one of the first in 1999.

10 IEEE POTENTIALS
With the growing interest of RFID into
The Decades of RFID
the item management arena and the
opportunity for RFID to work along side Decade Event
bar code, it becomes difficult in the later 1940–1950 Radar refined and used, major World War II development effort. RFID invented in
part of this decade to count the number of 1948.
1950–1960 Early explorations of RFID technology, laboratory experiments.
companies who enter the marketplace.
1960–1970 Development of the theory of RFID. Start of applications field trials.
Many have come and gone, many are still
1970–1980 Explosion of RFID development. Tests of RFID accelerate. Very early adopter
here, many have merged, and there are implementations of RFID.
many new players ... it seems almost daily! 1980–1990 Commercial applications of RFID enter mainstream.
1990–2000 Emergence of standards. RFID widely deployed. RFID becomes a part of everyday
life.
Back to the future: The 21st century 2000– RFID explosion continues
The 21st century opens with the small-
est microwave tags built using, at a mini-
mum, two components: a single custom
CMOS integrated circuit and an antenna. cations. EPC Global has assumed the task • D.B. Harris, “Radio transmission sys-
Tags could now be built as sticky labels, of standards for this application area. The tems with modulatable passive respon-
easily attached to windshields and objects International Standards Organization also der,” U.S. Patent 2 927 321, Mar. 1, 1960.
to be managed. The use of RFID for elec- has very active standards activities for a • R.J. King, Microwave Homodyne Sys-
tronic toll collection had expanded in the variety of application areas. tems. Stevenage, UK: Peregrinus, 1978.
United States to 3,500 lanes of traffic by The pace of developments in RFID • R.J. Klensch, “Electronic identification
2001. EEPROM remained the nonvolatile continues to accelerate. The future looks system,” U.S. Patent 3 914 762, Oct. 21, 1975.
memory of choice. The search continues very promising for this technology. The • A. Koelle, S. Depp, and R. Frey-
for a fast nonvolatile memory suited to the full potential also requires advancements man, “Short-range radio-telemetry for
requirements of RFID. The size of tags is in other areas as well such as develop- electronic identification using modulat-
now limited by the constraints of the ment of applications software; careful ed backscatter,” Proc. IEEE, vol. 63, no.
antenna. The design of suitable antennas development of privacy policies and 8, pp. 1260–1260, 1975.
and the search for better nonvolatile consideration of other legal aspects; • J. Landt, “Shrouds of time—The
memory are continuing design challenges. development of supporting infrastructure history of RFID,” AIM Inc., Pittsburg,
The impact of RFID is lauded regularly to design, install, and maintain RFID sys- PA, Oct. 2001 [Online]. Available:
in mainstream media, with the use of tems; and other such activities now that http:// www.aimglobal.org/technolo-
RFID slated to become even more ubiqui- RFID has truly entered the mainstream. gies/rfid/resources/shrouds_of_time.pdf
tous. The growing interest in telematics, At first glance, the concept of RFID and • R. Richardson, “Remotely activated
article tracking, and mobile commerce its application seems simple and straight- radio frequency powered devices,” U.S.
will bring RFID even closer to the con- forward. But in reality, the contrary is true. Patent 3 098 971, 1963.
sumer. The U.S. Federal Communications RFID is a technology that spans systems • H. Stockman, “Communication by
Commission (FCC) allocated spectrum in engineering, software development, circuit means of reflected power,” Proc. IRE,
the 5.9 GHz band for a vast expansion of theory, antenna theory, radio propagation, pp. 1196–1204, Oct. 1948.
intelligent transportation systems with microwave techniques, receiver design, • J.H. Vogelman, “Passive data trans-
many new applications and services pro- integrated circuit design, encryption, mate- mission techniques using radar echoes,”
posed. But the equipment required to rials technology, mechanical design, and U.S. Patent 3 391 404, 1968.
accommodate these new applications and network engineering, to mention a few.
services will necessitate advancements Increasing numbers of engineers are About the author
beyond the “traditional” RFID technology. involved in the development and applica- Jeremy Landt is one of the scientists
This next generation of short-range com- tion of RFID, and this trend will likely con- from Los Alamos National Laboratory that
munication systems between roadside tinue. At present, the shortage of technical developed RFID for the federal govern-
and vehicle are presently being standard- and business people trained in RFID is ment. As TransCore’s chief scientist, he is
ized within the IEEE and are based on hampering the growth of the industry. responsible for leading the technical
wireless LAN techniques. As we create our future, and it is developments of RFID systems. In 1984,
Supply chain management and article bright, let us remember, “Nothing great he was one of the five cofounders of
tracking are RFID application areas that was ever achieved without enthusiasm” Amtech Corporation and served as vice
have grown rapidly spurred by the tech- (Ralph Waldo Emerson). We have a great president of research and development.
nical breakthrough of the late 1990s to many developments to look forward to, He served on the Amtech board of direc-
incorporate microwave diodes in silicon history continues to teach us that. tors from May 1989 to August 1998. He
on the same die as the tag circuitry. This has authored more than 60 technical
development allows a reduction in the Read more about it papers and been awarded 16 U.S. patents.
size of circuitry, reduction in cost of tags, • AIM Global [Online]. Available: Before joining Amtech, he worked for
increased functionality, and increased http://www. aimglobal.org/technolo- nine years at the Los Alamos National Lab-
reliability. The AutoID center was orga- gies/rfid/resources_for_rfid.asp oratory in New Mexico. He earned a
nized at the Massachusetts Institute of • K. Finkenzeller, RFID Handbook. Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stan-
Technology to bring together RFID man- New York: Wiley, 1999. ford University and a master of science
ufacturers, researchers, and users to • R.F. Harrington, “Theory of loaded degree and a bachelor of science degree
develop standards, perform research, and scatterers,” Proc. Inst. Elect. Eng., vol. in electrical engineering from the South
share information for supply chain appli- 111, no. 4, pp. 617–623, 1964. Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

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