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Radio Frequency Technology eases tracking for transportation industry, DoD, retail

Companies that are dependent on fast and reliable transportation are actively looking into mobile and wireless technologies.

Good Morning! Mobile and wireless technology can do all sorts of amazing things, from allowing you to easily tap...

into your email or Internet information on-the-fly to browsing Web-posted breakfast menus as you walk down a New York City street.

However, we have to admit there is a soft spot in our hearts for those small places that hang coffee cups emblazoned with the names of their more frequent customers on the back wall, or know exactly how you like your eggs cooked before you even place your order. We witnessed this non-technical approach to personalization recently as we sat down for breakfast at The Snug, a new Irish pub that opened recently in Hingham, MA and strives for that local atmosphere.

Sometimes, though, it takes a bit of technology to deliver more personalization, as well as ensure security and control in this new world where we all now live. A few weeks ago, we found ourselves wandering around Boston's famous Fish Pier, which has been the focus of a considerable amount of development these days as the city seeks to rejuvenate this area with new roads, a possible convention center, a waterfront park and other urban improvements. In fact, this prime piece of property has undergone a number of dramatic changes already, brought about by the infamous 'Bid Dig', the addition of a new wireless-enabled hotel that connects to the World Trade Center, and a Federal court house.

While all of this development is remarkable, and certainly puts Boston in a better position for the future, we couldn't help but notice that this unstoppable march of progress has pretty much eliminated one of the more colorful elements of the old Fish Pier area, the fishing boats. Years ago, scores of colorful and picturesque boats shared the same general space as the World Trade Center and the enormous cruise ships that were gently tucked into the Black Falcon Terminal and other berthing spaces along the harbor. They were common and stereotypical icons of the New England fishing industry. Now, for the most part, they are gone.

The entire fishing industry has also changed from one that is primarily dependent on local activities to one that more and more resembles the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange -- only instead of buying and selling equities, fish distributors and wholesalers are executing trades in fresh and frozen fish, or speculating on the future demand of foreign Tiger shrimp. The end result is a more plentiful and varied supply of fish products, and maybe cheaper prices at the supermarket. Ah, progress!

Naturally, a lot of these seafood shipments arrive by land, sea and air, presenting all sorts of transportation and security problems in this new and more security-conscious world. It is not unusual, for example, for tens of thousands of pounds of frozen fish to sit in a containment area while government officials inspect the contents and track its travel history. Doing so not only risks spoiling the contents, but can also result in lost profits given the volatility of the perishable food market.

It is for this reason that companies that are heavily dependent on fast and reliable transportation are actively looking into mobile and wireless technologies that make it easier and less time consuming to track and monitor sealed container shipments worldwide. One of the technologies that show a lot of promise is radio frequency identification, or RFID, and the use of tags that are equipped with such technology.

Basically, these tags -- which have embedded microchips -- can be attached to individual products, pieces of equipment, and even entire locked containers, and emit radio signals that identify the contents and present a transport history of the tagged items. The benefit of this is instant identification of the contents of a sealed container as it makes its way from one point to another. If the RFID tag is broken or tampered with, then the tag becomes useless or can be programmed to emit a signal telling inspectors that something is amiss.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is, if course, a huge fan of RFID tags because they can be used to track and catalog the massive amounts of military shipments associated with such engagement as the current impending war with Iraq. In fact, the DoD started to seriously investigate smart-tagging alternatives about eight years ago as part of its Total Asset Visibility project.

Earlier this month, the U.S. reportedly expanded a multimillion-dollar contract to acquire more RFID tags to identify and track such things as containers of ammunition. Private-sector companies that have a lot of dealings with the U.S. government, such as Fortress Technology (www.fortresstech.com), obviously have a keen interest in such usage especially as government and public-sector companies rely more on wireless networks to gather information. Fortress presenlty offers a highly-secure 802.11 system, called AirFortress that was one of the first to meet the National Institute of Standards and Technologies requirements for government-level security.

Tapping into 'refriger-data'
A lot of Fortune 500 companies are also looking quite seriously into RFID technology as a means to provide real-time inventory tracking. Included among these is Gillette, the well-known maker of razors and shaving products (which reports say has already purchased 500 million smart tags), and retail giant Wal-Mart. The RFID technology can even be used to install so-called 'smart shelves', which can sense when the number of products on a grocery store shelf are getting low, and then alert the manufacturer or local sales rep to deliver more products.

Tech companies such as Motorola, Inc. (www.motorola.com) have also been dabbling with 'smart product' technology that can be directly attached or 'printed' on products, and then communicate with intelligent appliances to alert you when your milk is bearing its expiration date or your favorite food products are getting low. Theoretically, these appliances might even communicate with your local supermarket and automatically initiate a delivery of fresh food.

Obviously, there are some inherent privacy concerns associates with the widespread RFID tagging, especially as we work to create a safer and less threatening world. These concerns involve the use of RFID-equipped ID badges for employees and citizens, as well as the possibility of using RFID-tagging to track an individual's moves, buying preferences and habits.

Non-RFID identification badges are already being used by schools across the country to keep tabs on who should and should not be in a classroom, and civil liberties groups are already speaking out against the use non-communicative tracking and monitoring 'black box' type devices in automobiles, which can reveal intimate details of your driving habits before and after an accident. We can just imagine the debate when all of these systems are RFID-enabled, and then are wirelessly tied into related data base systems.

Swearing By Security The retailers thinking about using RFID systems swear they are secure, and will be disabled as soon as a consumer leaves the store area. They also maintain that these tags can only broadcast information over a limited area (perhaps about 15 feet), and transmit data that is basically useless to anyone except the store and its inventory control system. Remember, though, these are the same retailers who years ago claimed that computerization would protect consumes against conflicting pricing on products, and that the information collected via supermarket scan cards would never violate personal privacy. Uh, huh...

Despite very valid concerns about privacy protection, however, we believe RFID and other tracking technologies are here to stay and will be a necessary element of most every transportation-related system worldwide. IBM Corp. has even launched a 'smart chip' consultancy to help its clients take advantage of such embedded and 'invisible' solutions.

We believe RFID and other alternatives will help companies comply and remain competitive as more and more government restrictions and controls are placed on the shipping and transportation industry. In the case of one very large Boston-based international seafood distributor we visited with recently, it can mean the difference between having a container filled with tens of thousands of pounds of highly-perishable fish products sitting in a port somewhere waiting for inspection from multiple agencies, and getting these products quickly to market and at the best and most competitive price. And that is an RFID fish story worth telling.

About the author: Tim Scannell is the founder and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. He is also the Editorial Director and a member of the management team of Modezilla.com (www.modezilla.com), a mobile and wireless venture focusing on worldwide trends and developments in wireless and highly-mobile systems. Scannell has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor in the computer industry, working on such publications as Computerworld, PC Products, Mini-Micro Systems, Systems Integration and most recently Computer Reseller News. You can reach him at:tjscan@shorelineresearch.com

This was last published in March 2003

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