Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID, is the scanning of special tags with radio waves. These tags can be affixed on items from boxes to wrist bands, and can contain information like the item’s name, SKU number, to even a picture. That information is then scanned and stored by using RFID readers on devices like rugged industrial tablets

While mostly associated in manufacturing, RFID technology is versatile. In the blog post, 4 Surprising Uses For Industrial RFID Technology, we saw how it’s used to track passenger luggage and casino chips, prevent illegal logging, and to send personalized messages from fans to marathon runners. For this post, we’re covering four more surprising uses of RFID. 

1) School Attendance Tracking

One parental nightmare is getting a call from their child’s school informing them that their little one is missing. To prevent this, several schools in Ohio turned to RFID to keep track of their students. 

The Cincinnati Public Schools and First Student bus company partnered to create the ZPass program. Students of the 43 elementary schools each get an RFID-equipped card. As they board on and off the bus, they get their card scanned by an in-vehicle computer. The student’s parents are then notified via text message. 

“It’s going very well,” said John Davis, director of transportation for the school district, when asked about the program. “Parents and schools love the access to information and notification. It gives schools a roster of who is on the bus. Schools can access that information while the bus is en route. So if there’s an incident, they know who the kids are and have parent contact information.” 

Besides alerting the parents, the system also provides weather reports and traffic accidents.

2) Hospital Laundry

Tracking 80,000 pieces of hospital garments, linens, and towels is both an expensive and time-consuming process. That’s what the Argentine-based hospital Sanatorio Finochietto faced in 2018. Previous solutions like purchasing excess inventory to replace lost items were sky-rocketing in costs. And the system of having employees count each and every item manually as they were processed by the laundry service was consuming valuable time as well as money. 

Sanatorio Finochietto turned to RFID as the solution. Now each garment, linen, and towel is stitched with an RFID tag. Readers in special lockers were used to count items going out to be laundered; a similar one was used for returning cleaned items. Up to 1,000 items could be scanned and counted simultaneously at a time. Handheld readers were used throughout the hospital to make sure each item was in its appropriate location from the surgical wards to a patient’s room. 

Garments worn as uniforms were assigned to specific employees through this new system. After their shift was done, the employees would simply remove and drop the uniform off at the nearest dirty laundry shoot to be laundered. RFID readers around the hospital doorways would sound an alert if they somehow forgot to remove the uniform. This was important: previously, many employees simply washed their hospital garb at home and would wear it during their shift. This was against hospital protocol since such uniforms could be infected with dangerous pathogens. Security personnel at the doors would help forgetful employees to remove and return their uniforms appropriately.

3) Keeping Bird’s Nest Soup Authentic

The swiftlet is a group of birds found mainly in Southern Asia, neighboring Pacific islands, and northeastern Australia. During the breeding season, several swiftlet species, instead of building a nest composed of plant materials, build them out of saliva.  

These nests are the main component of the appropriately named, “bird’s nest soup.”
While a soup made from bird spit may not sound appealing to most Westerners, it’s a major delicacy in Asia. And an expensive one: a bowl of bird’s nest soup can set a customer back $30 to $100, while the raw material itself commands prices between $2,500 to $10,000 per kilogram. It’s unsurprising, then, these nests are called the “Caviar of the East.” 

The high demand and profit potential for bird’s nest soup has attracted counterfeiters who lower prices with false products. To combat this, the Malaysia government is using RFID to track bird’s nests. Simply, the entire process is followed from the caves where the nests are harvested, the factories where they’re painstakingly cleaned and sorted, to their shipment to customers. The information is then stored in government servers. Customers simply download an app to scan the RFID tag of their purchase to verify its authenticity. 

“With the RFID technology, consumers will know that they are getting the real thing, so we can mark up our prices by 50%,” says Chua Huai Gen of Yanming Resources, an exporter of bird’s nests. 

4) RFID Sensors

RFID tags are powered in two different ways. Battery-assisted tags, as their name implies, come with an embedded battery to sustain the chip. Passive RFID tags, on the other hand, are actually powered by the radio waves from the reader as it hits the tag. 

The engineers at the Auto-ID Lab MIT, well aware of this fact, looked to take advantage by transforming RFID tags into sensors. The department, well-known for its “bleeding edge” RFID development, had developed an RFID tag that could sense increases in glucose around it and transmit the information to a reader. More importantly, though, is the tag is actually powered by the very glucose it’s sensing

The design is ingenious. The normally passive RFID tag is attached to an electrode designed to charge up with a particular substance like glucose. When the electrode senses the glucose, it generates an electrical charge. The once-passive RFID tag now acts like a battery-assisted one. This notifies readers of the presence of glucose. Also, because the tag is actively broadcasting the signal, RFID readers can be placed up to 10 times farther away than regular ones (i.e., 30 feet vs 3 to 6 feet). The strength and longevity of the signal can also convey vital information like how much glucose is present.     

MIT is looking to develop these “RFID sensors” with electrodes that react to other substances like carbon monoxide, which is normally undetectable by people. As Sai Nithin Reddy Kantareddy, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, points out: “Imagine creating thousands of these inexpensive RFID tag sensors which you can just slap onto the walls of an infrastructure or the surrounding objects to detect common gasses like carbon monoxide or ammonia, without needing an additional battery. You could deploy these cheaply, over a huge network.”

Closing Thoughts

In both concept and real-world use, RFID is quite simple: scanning special tags via radio waves to obtain the tag’s information. It’s in the simplicity that makes RFID technology such a versatile tool. Companies can go beyond simply figuring out how much inventory they have in the warehouse. With the beep of a reader, parents can know their children’s whereabouts, customers can verify their expensive soup is authentic, and a stadium is safe from lethal gasses. Contact an expert at Cybernet if you’re looking to move your RFID system to the next level. Also follow Cybernet on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin to stay up to date on this and other relevant topics.