RFID tags, the dime-sized devices that can track inventory from the factory to the store, are being embraced as one of the hottest of new technologies. But Patrick J. Sweeney II likens most available applications of RFID, or radio frequency identification, to the user-unfriendly personal computers of the 1980s: a blank screen and a command prompt.
"We're creating a nice 'Windows' interface to make it easy for people to understand the deployment," Sweeney said of his two-year old company, Odin Technologies. "One of the problems in the industry is the readers, the tags and the systems are very complex and difficult to deploy."
Odin's technology assists in setting up the readers that pick up information from the tags as well as in tuning the antennas and configuring the frequency, power and other outputs within a reader system. "We handle the deployment, development and design of the infrastructure layer," Sweeney said. "We do it using a scientific process. Most people today are using trial and error."
Sweeney argues the Reston company is in the right place at the right time: It is one of only two or three companies that focus specifically on infrastructure out of about 25 companies in the RFID sector.
RFID chips, with their built-in antennas, transmit and receive data within an electromagnetic field generated by a reader or scanner. The average maximum distance between chip and reader is about 10 feet, far enough to scan shipments entering a warehouse. Unlike bar codes, the chips do not need to be in direct line-of-sight of the scanners, although chip placement on the product is important. So far, RFID is used primarily in shipping and supply-chain management. The Department of Defense and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have both asked their largest suppliers to begin using RFID tags on shipment pallets by January 2005.
Champions of RFID technology envision a world where the chips are embedded in things such as soda cans and wedding bands, each chip carrying information about the product -- what it is, where it is, where it's been and even who it belongs to.
The technology has spawned a flurry of Orwellian concerns about the impact of RFID on individual privacy. But Sweeney thinks that as long as the technology is confined to warehouses and distribution centers, there's no privacy problems. "All of the applications we're dealing with are used in supply-chain management or shipping," Sweeney said. "It doesn't affect individuals. There are a lot less privacy implications than you have with your credit card." Nevertheless, the RFID industry is developing a second generation of tags with strong encryption and embedded "kill" commands designed specifically to address privacy concerns and prevent hacking.
Odin isn't in the business of slapping RFID chips onto individual bottles of shampoo because the chips -- at about 30 cents each even when purchased in volume -- are still too expensive. "It's only practical to use them on expensive items or large cases of items," Sweeney said. The company targets four major industries: the federal government, retail and consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, and the construction industry.
Odin likes to say it specializes in the "physics" of RFID implementation. Sweeney said that's literally true because a combination of electromagnetic waves, ambient electronic noise theory and quantitative physics dictate how the RFID systems behave. "Each product has different properties when it goes through an interrogation field," Sweeney said. "We test for how products behave in an RF zone and then from that we can determine the best tag for [the company] to use and where they should put that tag on the product."
Odin has a number of patent-pending proprietary technologies related to RFID that Sweeney said puts his company ahead of the curve. "We've started setting up multiple systems to figure out what problems people would run into if they deployed them in the distribution centers," Sweeney said. "We think a couple years ahead of everybody else."