RFID expansion at JFK highlights uses, issues

The RFID system that tracks and identifies vehicles used to transport aircraft fuel at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is now being used on hundreds of food-service and employee transportation vehicles at the air traffic hub.

To ease runway and facilities access, trucks with airport access are equipped with active radio tags that provide identification and validation when they approach entrance gates.

"The driver doesn’t have to step out of the truck anymore," said Allan Griebenow, CEO of Axcess, which provides the RFID transmitters and receivers for the systems.

Exiting the truck to enter a key code exposed the drivers to the potential threat of being hijacked and slowed transportation, causing trucks to back up onto the runway during peak traffic, according to Griebenow. The rolling-access RFID system installed at JFK allows a passing speed of 35 miles per hour at the gates.

A small battery-powered RFID tag, mounted under each vehicle's hood, contains integrated circuits connected to an antenna activated by larger underground antennas around the gates. The tag only transmits when called upon, which keeps a tag working for up to five years.

The tags respond with their own unique signals and each control point within the system uses a special frequency and message to activate the RFID chip in order to track the vehicle's route.

"We can cover any area, like a Wi-Fi system," Griebenow said. The ability to cover a limited area with RFID readers is a crucial part of another Axcess-based system, approved three weeks ago at a JFK cargo warehouse, which monitors personnel. Employees are only allowed within certain boundaries delineated by colored marks on the ground, eliminating the need for physical barriers.

"If someone enters an area where he or she is not authorized, the system sends that information to the guards," Griebenow said.

Also, assets such as laptops or other goods can be associated with a certain individual or vehicle, allowing, for example, only certain individuals access to specific computers.

RFID technology has been used in commercial business applications since the 1980s but adoption has never really taken off.

"The high cost of the hardware, tags and readers is an inhibitor of the adaption of RFID technology among companies," said Dan Vesset, research director for IDC's analytics and data warehousing software unit.

Axcess' personnel tag, worn on the wrist and the size of a wristwatch, costs $10 per unit compared to the vehicle units, which are priced between $30 and $50. Passive read-only tags, used in the retail sector for loss prevention and tracking goods, can cost less than $0.30.

Both Griebenow and Vesset expect that the demand for lower-priced tags, active and passive, will be met when demand volume increases.

"We have already seen the price drop substantially," Griebenow said.

Vesset said that the lack of a clear return on investment is another factor slowing RFID adoption.

Active tag systems for controlling vehicle access results in savings up to as much as 40% compared to traditional systems, according to Griebenow.

"Typically what happens is that fewer vehicles are needed and the turnaround time is reduced," he said.

Griebenow predicts the use of RFID virtually everywhere within the not-so-distant future.

"Today our company provides it for both missiles and babies, which shows the potential of the concept," he said. "As the price drops, more business opportunities will be viable for more sectors. We have seen this accelerate since Wal-Mart announced its use of RFID. But it's not only a matter of price -- every new technology has an implementation curve."

Lack of global frequency standards is also slowing the adoption, according to an IDC end-user survey from last December on the state of U.S. RFID adoption.

The same study identified major benefits for companies using the technology: accuracy in inventory management, reduction in labor time for material handling and improved demand and production planning.

"The companies invest in the hardware and software but it's when the data is collected that the software really becomes an issue: What to do with all this information?" Vesset asked.

Vesset compares today's immature RFID market with e-commerce in the late 1990s. "The companies ran into problems when all this Web user tracking information was collected. Google, Yahoo and eBay were some of the first to figure out what to do with that information, which gave them advantage," he said.

As with all wireless technology that tracks or identifies individuals, privacy also becomes an issue. However, the IDC study recognized privacy concerns from the customers as one of the low hurdles to adoption.

"The privacy (issue) could come up further down the line when RFID is more widely applied on cars and customer products," Vesset said.

Griebenow points out the privacy improvements that he sees. "At hospitals for example, the handling of patient's journals becomes safer and the documents containing personal information does not have to be in an open journal by the patient's bed."

Publicly traded Axcess has been developing RFID technology since 1991, focusing on active tags, and has three RFID-related patents.

Axcess, citing security reasons, declined to reveal the companies using the RFID systems at JFK.

RFID applications are generally a growing market, according to a survey from The Computing Technology Industry Association released in March. According to the survey, 80% of the 50 IT businesses polled said they had a shortage of RFID-skilled personnel.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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