Radio frequency identification is an automatic ID system. Like a barcode or the magnetic strip on a credit card, an RFID tag provides a unique identification code that can be read by a scanning device. Unlike other ID systems, RFID uses radio waves to communicate with readers. When a reader picks up these waves, it converts them into digital data that identifies the object that contains the tag. There are numerous benefits to RFID technology, but it comes with some limitations and drawbacks as well.
An RFID reader can scan a tag as long as it is within frequency range. It does not have any line-of-sight limitations. Alternative ID solutions, such as barcoding, require the reader to be close to the barcode before it can "see" it to scan it. RFID systems can automatically pick up tag IDs from a distance and, in some cases, through obstacles between the tag and the reader.
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RFID systems can scan multiple items simultaneously. For example, you could scan incoming goods in your warehouse in the box, allowing you to check all contents at once without having to run individual barcode scans on each item. Other ID systems typically have a single or limited identifier for each object -- RFID tags can contain more information. Some are also read-write, allowing you to add or change data. You can implant tags into objects or use plastic coverings to protect them. This makes them more robust than some other ID tags. For example, barcodes must sit on the exterior of objects, making them prone to damage that may make them unreadable.
Speed and Convenience
RFID readers can scan tags in milliseconds and work automatically. Optical scanning systems may need manual operation and may work less quickly, since the operator has to align the reader and code exactly to scan it successfully. The speed of operation also has convenience benefits in services such as cashless payments. For example, some festivals, venues and theme parks allow visitors to load cash onto RFID-tagged wristbands so that they can tap a reader to pay. They do not have to carry wallets with them and may spend less time waiting in line.
Although RFID technology has been around since the 1970s, its initial high costs restricted usage to larger businesses, many of whom developed proprietary systems. Although costs are falling, RFID systems are still typically more expensive to set up and use than alternative systems such as optical scanning. However, RFID systems bring their own cost benefits, such as reduced labor costs and improved efficiency.
Despite their reliability, RFID systems can still have problems. Although readers can scan through most non-metallic materials, they have problems with metal and water. The fact that you can scan multiple objects in a range is a benefit, but also comes with possible issues that can cause malfunctions. Tag collision may occur if a reader picks up signals from multiple tags at the same time. Reader collision may be an issue if two readers interfere with each other's signals.
RFID Security and Privacy Concerns
RFID also brings up some security issues. Unauthorized devices may be able to read and even change data on tags without the knowledge of the person who owns the object. Side-channel attacks can pick up RFID data as it passes from a tag to a reader, which could give the attacker access to passwords or information that should be secure. Some states have privacy statutes to restrict activities that might use RFID technology to collect personal information.
- RFID Journal: Frequently Asked Questions
- RFID Journal: What Are the Advantages of RFID?
- Brooks Automation: RFID Advantages
- PDC: RFID in Action -- Dorney Park
- ThingMagic: RFID Security Issues
- National Conference of State Legislatures: State Statutes Relating to Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Privacy