How Does RFID Location Tracking Work?

In 1945, Leon Theremin invented a small listening device for the Soviet Union — He christened it “the Thing.” It was a tool that retransmitted incident radio waves with added audio info. This little device, a covert spy gadget in line with the 007 mentalities of the day, is today considered the predecessor of the RFID location tracking technology. Thanks to Leon, in 1973, Mario Cardullo, patented the first real ancestor of the modern RFID tagging device. It was mainly used, as some of today’s RFID, as a toll device for the New York Port Authority. 

Since then, the use of this technology has taken off. Today RFID tagging is used in retail, commerce, promotion tracking, access control, transport and logistics, passports, animal identification, human implantation, libraries, museums, sports, telemetry, waste management, and hundreds of other industries. It’s important, due to their massive power, and streamlining benefits to all industries, to understand what the tech actually is, how it works, and the types available. 

What is RFID location tracking?

RFID stands for Radio-Frequency Identification. The technology is a device that uses electromagnetic to track and automatically ID tags attached to objects. It can be used to track items by assigning them an ID which is then read by an RFID reader. In general, RFID tags are small chips with antennas and other electronics embedded in them. They are made of silicone and plastic and can be as small as a grain of rice or as large as an index card — when triggered by an “interrogation pulse” from an RFID reader, the tag instantly and automatically transmits digital data. 

A typical RFID tag has three parts: the silicon chip, the antenna, and the protective coating (usually plastic). The antenna captures radio waves from an RFID reader’s antenna and converts those waves into electrical signals that are sent to the chip. These types of tags are used in hundreds of industries and, unlike barcodes, they don’t require to be within the line of sight of a reader, just close to one. As of 2014, the global RFID market was worth over $8.89 billion and is expected to rise to over $16 billion by the year 2029. 

The RFID location tracking technology can track the location of an object without the need for any form of human intervention. It does this by broadcasting a radio signal that is picked up by a receiver. RFID tags are usually small, but they can be much larger depending on the power source and the consumer’s needs. They are often used in warehouses to help automate inventory tracking and management. The tags on these items can help identify their location, so they know where to pick them up from and where to store them once they have been scanned in.

RFID tags are also used in other parts of the supply chain, such as clothing retailers who want to keep their inventory organized and trackable.

Types of RFID location tracking devices

There are two primary types of RFID devices available to the public right now — active RFID and passive RFID. Let’s take a look at how each works. 

Active RFID location tracking tags 

Active RFID tags are powered by an internal energy supply — a battery. This makes them bulkier, and more complex, but also means that they have a greater range when it comes to their use. They don’t need to be near the RFID reader to be registered and catalogued. This is their main advantage, the fact that they can be placed hundreds of meters away from their reader and still give their owners an accurate reading. The two main frequencies used by active RFID tags are 433 MHz and 2.45 GHz. 

Typically, these types of devices are powered by a battery that will last between 3 to 5 years — once the device runs out of juice it will need to be replaced, either the whole device or in some cases the battery. 

Passive RFID location tracking tags

Passive RFID tags are devices that do not need any power supply to transmit information. They are used in a variety of applications, including inventory management and access control. Passive RFID tags are different from active RFID tags in the way they work. Active RFID tags require power to operate and send signals, which creates a significant battery life problem for the tag. Passive RFID tags don’t require any power supply, so they can be used in places where there is no electricity or when battery life is an issue. Passive RFID tags are also more difficult to track than active ones because they don’t transmit their ID constantly as active ones do. They only send out their ID when they sense that something is nearby and then go back into sleep mode until it senses

How to select the right RFID technology?

RFID tags are small and inexpensive and can be attached to items or embedded in them. Choosing the right devices depends on your needs and your industry. 

The pros of Passive RFID are:

  • Smaller.
  • Cheaper.
  • Thinner and far more flexible. 
  • Tags can last a lifetime without a battery.
  • You have a higher range of options to choose from.

Meanwhile, the pros of Active RFID are:

  • They are more rugged — which makes them a perfect fit for extreme weather conditions. 
  • They have a long range.
  • You can pair them up with another tech such as GPS and sensors as well as smartphone apps.

Both devices use radio frequencies to communicate but in practice are very different. They are similar but are in reality used for different purposes and in different industries. For example, Active RFIDs are used to track expensive tools and supplies, mainly in construction, mining, and the oil and gas industry. They are expensive and can really take a beating. Meanwhile, passive RFID tags are mainly used in healthcare and retail, they are flexible, extremely small, and can be welded to products with adhesive or Epoxy, they cost less than $1 per tag but are incredibly ineffective around water or metal. 

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