KU research team tags tracking technology

Lawrence,KS (08-09-2005)

From Lawrence Journal-World
By Mark Fagan

Dan Deavours and Karthik Ramakrishnan spend their days shooting radio waves into passive microchips taped to a slab of 2-inch thick Owens Corning foam insulation.

Then they chart how many come back.

"Its sort of like radar," said Deavours, as quiet test tones--similar to the buzz patients hear when getting an X-ray --pummeled thin strips of plastic and circuits in his windowless lab. "It blasts it and looks for a return."

The monotonous process may not sound like much, but the Kansas University scientists research is tuning into the next wave of business inventory technology.

Deavours is director of the RFID Alliance Laboratory, which aims to compile unbiased information about the performance, efficiency and other components of product-tracking technology known as "radio frequency identification" tags.

Such tags are considered the next generation of the traditional bar code, which has appeared on countless products for years and allows computer scanners to track everything from the price of a loaf of bread to the contents of a box delivered to a store.

RFID takes such technology to the next level. Each tag, or strip, holds a microchip that can be read by a radio transmitter from a remote location. Scanning a storeroom or warehouse can take mere seconds, compared with other labor-intensive procedures.

However, the current technology, Deavours said, has a number of limitations--limitations his lab is busy charting, so that businesses dont end up buying into systems that wont perform to expected standards.

For one thing, he said, the tags cant be read consistently when placed next to metal, whether its a barrel of oil, the foil inside a box of laundry detergent--even the metallic paint on the outside of a wireless phone.

"Right now, is RFID better than bar codes? No," said Deavours, an assistant research professor at KUs Information and Telecommunication Technology Center. "Will it be better than bar codes? Someday, yeah."

Companies certainly are betting that the technology will come through. Wal-Mart, the worlds largest retailer, already has told its suppliers to start including tags on boxes of deliveries this year; Target and Best Buy also are embracing RFID.

Deavours and Ramakrishnan, a graduate student from India, are tracking a number of tags--there are about 30 on the market--for performance, security, limitations and other characteristics that could be important as more companies buy into such systems.

Deavours figures that it wont be long before pharmaceuticals companies start tagging individual bottles of drugs, to help track supplies that otherwise might be counterfeited. Computer makers might put strips on each monitor, keyboard or hard drive, to ease tracking of warranty information without having to have a receipt.

Who knows? If the technologys performance improves and prices drop--each tag currently costs anywhere from 30 cents to $2--RFID tags on milk bottles could tell a persons refrigerator when the milks expiration date is soon to arrive.

But as Deavours and Ramakrishnan emphasized that such advanced uses remained well into the future.

Their tests have confirmed it.

For more information, contact ITTC.

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