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Radio-frequency identification (RFID) uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects. An RFID system consists of a tiny radio transponder, a radio receiver and transmitter. When triggered by an electromagnetic interrogation pulse from a nearby RFID reader device, the tag transmits digital data, usually an identifying inventory number, back to the reader. This number can be used to track inventory goods.
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Passive tags are powered by energy from the RFID reader's interrogating radio waves. Active tags are powered by a battery and thus can be read at a greater range from the RFID reader, up to hundreds of meters.
Unlike a barcode, the tag does not need to be within the line of sight of the reader, so it may be embedded in the tracked object. RFID is one method of automatic identification and data capture (AIDC).
In 2014, the world RFID market was worth US$8.89 billion, up from US$7.77 billion in 2013 and US$6.96 billion in 2012. This figure includes tags, readers, and software/services for RFID cards, labels, fobs, and all other form factors. The market value is expected to rise from US$12.08 billion in 2020 to US$16.23 billion by 2029.
A radio-frequency identification system uses tags, or labels attached to the objects to be identified. Two-way radio transmitter-receivers called interrogators or readers send a signal to the tag and read its response.
RFID tags can be either passive, active or battery-assisted passive. An active tag has an on-board battery and periodically transmits its ID signal. A battery-assisted passive tag has a small battery on board and is activated when in the presence of an RFID reader. A passive tag is cheaper and smaller because it has no battery; instead, the tag uses the radio energy transmitted by the reader. However, to operate a passive tag, it must be illuminated with a power level roughly a thousand times stronger than an active tag for signal transmission. This makes a difference in interference and in exposure to radiation.
The RFID tag receives the message and then responds with its identification and other information. This may be only a unique tag serial number, or may be product-related information such as a stock number, lot or batch number, production date, or other specific information. Since tags have individual serial numbers, the RFID system design can discriminate among several tags that might be within the range of the RFID reader and read them simultaneously.
Fixed readers are set up to create a specific interrogation zone which can be tightly controlled. This allows a highly defined reading area for when tags go in and out of the interrogation zone. Mobile readers may be handheld or mounted on carts or vehicles.
Signaling between the reader and the tag is done in several different incompatible ways, depending on the frequency band used by the tag. Tags operating on LF and HF bands are, in terms of radio wavelength, very close to the reader antenna because they are only a small percentage of a wavelength away. In this near field region, the tag is closely coupled electrically with the transmitter in the reader. The tag can modulate the field produced by the reader by changing the electrical loading the tag represents. By switching between lower and higher relative loads, the tag produces a change that the reader can detect. At UHF and higher frequencies, the tag is more than one radio wavelength away from the reader, requiring a different approach. The tag can backscatter a signal. Active tags may contain functionally separated transmitters and receivers, and the tag need not respond on a frequency related to the reader's interrogation signal.
Often more than one tag will respond to a tag reader, for example, many individual products with tags may be shipped in a common box or on a common pallet. Collision detection is important to allow reading of data. Two different types of protocols are used to "singulate" a particular tag, allowing its data to be read in the midst of many similar tags. In a slotted Aloha system, the reader broadcasts an initialization command and a parameter that the tags individually use to pseudo-randomly delay their responses. When using an "adaptive binary tree" protocol, the reader sends an initialization symbol and then transmits one bit of ID data at a time; only tags with matching bits respond, and eventually only one tag matches the complete ID string.
"Bulk reading" is a strategy for interrogating multiple tags at the same time, but lacks sufficient precision for inventory control. A group of objects, all of them RFID tagged, are read completely from one single reader position at one time. However, as tags respond strictly sequentially, the time needed for bulk reading grows linearly with the number of labels to be read. This means it takes at least twice as long to read twice as many labels. Due to collision effects, the time required is greater.
RFID offers advantages over manual systems or use of barcodes. The tag can be read if passed near a reader, even if it is covered by the object or not visible. The tag can be read inside a case, carton, box or other container, and unlike barcodes, RFID tags can be read hundreds at a time; barcodes can only be read one at a time using current devices. Some RFID tags, such as battery-assisted passive tags, are also able to monitor temperature and humidity.
RFID tags are widely used in identification badges, replacing earlier magnetic stripe cards. These badges need only be held within a certain distance of the reader to authenticate the holder. Tags can also be placed on vehicles, which can be read at a distance, to allow entrance to controlled areas without having to stop the vehicle and present a card or enter an access code.
RFID is used in intelligent transportation systems. In New York City, RFID readers are deployed at intersections to track E-ZPass tags as a means for monitoring the traffic flow. The data is fed through the broadband wireless infrastructure to the traffic management center to be used in adaptive traffic control of the traffic lights.
Since 2006, RFID tags included in new United States passports will store the same information that is printed within the passport, and include a digital picture of the owner. The United States Department of State initially stated the chips could only be read from a distance of 10 centimetres (3.9 in), but after widespread criticism and a clear demonstration that special equipment can read the test passports from 10 metres (33 ft) away, the passports were designed to incorporate a thin metal lining to make it more difficult for unauthorized readers to skim information when the passport is closed. The department will also implement Basic Access Control (BAC), which functions as a personal identification number (PIN) in the form of characters printed on the passport data page. Before a passport's tag can be read, this PIN must be entered into an RFID reader. The BAC also enables the encryption of any communication between the chip and interrogator.
Privacy concerns have been raised[by whom?] surrounding library use of RFID. Because some RFID tags can be read up to 100 metres (330 ft) away, there is some concern over whether sensitive information could be collected from an unwilling source. However, library RFID tags do not contain any patron information, and the tags used in the majority of libraries use a frequency only readable from approximately 10 feet (3.0 m). Another concern is that a non-library agency could potentially record the RFID tags of every person leaving the library without the library administrator's knowledge or consent. One simple option is to let the book transmit a code that has meaning only in conjunction with the library's database. Another possible enhancement would be to give each book a new code every time it is returned. In future, should readers become ubiquitous (and possibly networked), then stolen books could be traced even outside the library. Tag removal could be made difficult if the tags are so small that they fit invisibly inside a (random) page, possibly put there by the publisher.
Since around 2007 there been increasing development in the use of RFID[when?] in the waste management industry. RFID tags are installed on waste collection carts, linking carts to the owner's account for easy billing and service verification. The tag is embedded into a garbage and recycle container, and the RFID reader is affixed to the garbage and recycle trucks. RFID also measures a customer's set-out rate and provides insight as to the number of carts serviced by each waste collection vehicle. This RFID process replaces traditional "pay as you throw" (PAYT) municipal solid waste usage-pricing models.
Passive RFID tags can also report sensor data. For example, the Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform is a passive tag that reports temperature, acceleration and capacitance to commercial Gen2 RFID readers.
Not every successful reading of a tag (an observation) is useful for business purposes. A large amount of data may be generated that is not useful for managing inventory or other applications. For example, a customer moving a product from one shelf to another, or a pallet load of articles that passes several readers while being moved in a warehouse, are events that do not produce data that are meaningful to an inventory control system.
A primary RFID security concern is the illicit tracking of RFID tags. Tags, which are world-readable, pose a risk to both personal location privacy and corporate/military security. Such concerns have been raised with respect to the United States Department of Defense's recent[when?] adoption of RFID tags for supply chain management. More generally, privacy organizations have expressed concerns in the context of ongoing efforts to embed electronic product code (EPC) RFID tags in general-use products. This is mostly as a result of the fact that RFID tags can be read, and legitimate transactions with readers can be eavesdropped on, from non-trivial distances. RFID used in access control, payment and eID (e-passport) systems operate at a shorter range than EPC RFID systems but are also vulnerable to skimming and eavesdropping, albeit at shorter distances.