New Zealand RFID company broadens scope

New Zealand-based RFID specialists Sandtracker are on a roll with several new clients with specialized applications using its RFID technology.

Two of the applications are concerned with physical security. Auckland company Stepout is using a specially-shaped RFID assembly with a long "tail" containing the aerial extending across the closure of a crate or container. Any attempt to tamper with the container breaks the aerial connection and the chip sends an alarm signal.

Perhaps the more revolutionary version of the technology is a disk-shaped assembly with the chip mounted on the edge, which Sandtracker director Jan Hilder says can be stuck directly to a metal surface -- a situation in which most RFID devices won't work -- and is difficult to render inactive through physical damage. Thus it is ideal as an anti-theft marker on appliances and is even, she claims, low-priced enough to attach economically to individual DVDs sold at retail for NZ$25 (AU$22.60).

A third company, Pallenz, of Hamilton, is using the device to mark returnable pallets.

As revealed earlier this year, the simple low-priced radio markers are being used by sports-event company CodeNZ on the identifying bibs worn by athletes. They can be read as the athletes cross a radio beam between two poles that can be up to 10 meters apart, Hilder says. Large groups of runners crossing together have been individually counted successfully. The readings feed into CodeNZ's software which records the performance of categories of athletes; for example, the first three over-50-year-olds to cross the line in a marathon.

This last involves a cheap form of the chip, a basic crystal diode like those in old hobby radio sets, which can be put into the ink used to print the numbers on the bibs. This means the competitors can keep their bibs as a memento of the occasion; in previous versions of the CodeNZ system, they had to be returned for reuse because the RFID chips were too expensive to be used only once.

Hilder acknowledges that some of the implementations of the chip do not adhere to developing international EPC standards, but it is Sandtracker's intention to work with the standards body to accommodate the new chips within the standard. The numbering system adheres to the standard, she says, as do the radio frequencies and other characteristics of the signal; but certain physical features of the chips simply do not fit with anything envisaged by the standards bodies, and the standard may have to be extended. This inevitably happens as technologies advance, she says; "it would be like expecting the first airplanes to work to standards written for cars."

She attributes the unusual price-breaking technology to "having physicists work on the problem rather than engineers." The former are more likely to re-examine the problem from first principles.

The next set of Sandtracker applications will be in agriculture, with fruit-picking, meat processing and livestock management on the list.

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