by Jamie Beckett
Radio tags similar to those now commonly used in
employee ID badges could soon turn up on everything from cases of semiconductors
to soap to fine wines as more and more businesses look to the tags as a possible
replacement for the now-ubiquitous bar codes.
Known as RFID, or radio frequency identification, the tags give businesses
the ability to automatically track, in real time, a product from the manufacturing
plant all the way to the cash register. The result could be better inventory
control, lower supply-chain costs and better product availability for customers.
which is rolling out its first RFID-ready products as part of a Wal-Mart
trial, already is a leader in using and understanding the technology. The company
uses RFID within its own supply chain, provides RFID services to customers
and is part of a global effort to establish RFID standards.
Now a team from HP Labs is taking the technology even further.
Researchers are combining the object-tracking abilities of RFID
with sensors that capture video images, determine location or
measure environmental factors like temperature or humidity into
a powerful infrastructure they call Sentient Environments.
The goal: to allow businesses to track items continuously, securely
and wirelessly, providing a richer, more accurate picture of objects,
whether these are servers in a data center, cases of soap in a
warehouse or suitcases in an airport.
"What you want to do is certify electronically if your goods
are secure -- not only when they’re in range of an RFID
reader, but all of the time," says Salil Pradhan, HP’s
chief technologist for RFID and leader of the related research
program at HP Labs.
A Sentient Environment – that is, "responsive or conscious
of sensed impressions" -- knows precisely what happens to
objects in its vicinity. It is designed to ensure that goods are
not only in a specific location, but in a specific condition.
If a shipment of
seafood is spoiled, for instance, the manufacturer or distributor
can determine where and when the refrigeration system failed. Similarly,
a computer manufacturer could certify that the laptops it’s shipped
haven’t been stolen or replaced with inferior counterfeits, or
that none of the items are “grey market” goods -- branded products
diverted from normal or authorized distribution channels.
Sentient Environments also could play a role in national security,
enabling government agencies to determine with certainty whether
goods have been tampered with or contaminated, and if so, where
the security breach occurred. The technology might, for example,
be used as part of the U.S. government's
port security initiative, which requires that all
cargo containers are monitored.
Gathering all that information requires more sensors. Although
existing sensor deployments (including RFID) can potentially collect
more data, they are hard to configure and more prone to failure.
Failure in one RFID reader can bring down the entire system.
more, RFID systems only track goods within range of a reader, so
items that are out of range -- deep within a warehouse, for example
-- may be unaccounted for or simply lost.
By contrast, the Sentient Environments infrastructure will be
self-configuring, self-managing and self-healing. With a hierarchy
wireless network structures and computing nodes,
the infrastructure would be capable of processing and filtering
data from both sensors and RFID.
Nodes are aware of each other, coordinate with each other and
compensate for each other. If one fails, the network is unharmed.
If conditions change, the network adjusts.
In a Sentient Environments system, a pallet of goods arriving at a warehouse
would be scanned by an RFID reader. A Web cam then provides a visual identification
and follows the pallet to the aisle or section of the warehouse where it is
To track the exact location of items, even as they’re moved
around the warehouse or into a store, Sentient Environments relies on the researchers’ LOCUS
technology, a sort of Global Positioning System for indoors. Nodes use
radio frequency and ultrasound pulses to locate themselves relative to one
another, providing a set of coordinates for the pallet.
Additional sensors within the warehouse could communicate data about temperature,
air pressure, humidity and other environmental factors.
The sentient system also monitors the health of the RFID readers, identifying
those that appear to be foundering, then either notifying a manager or automatically
shifting work to a healthy reader to prevent the system from going down.
All of the data is available visually via a technology called GeoView, a
3D graphical user interface that gives users the ability to visualize data
and view it over time.
"The end-to-end security architecture maintains the integrity and privacy
of sensor data," says Fred Kitson, director of the Mobile and Media Systems
Lab, which encompasses the Sentient Environments research. "Together, the
Sentient Environments technologies will result in a more adaptive, secure and
manageable RFID/sensing infrastructure."
The Sentient Environments infrastructure will adhere to defined
industry protocols and specifications – in this case, the Electronic
Product Code (EPC) protocols supported by EPCglobal, a not-for-profit academic
and industry group. The EPC, which resides on the RFID tag, identifies a
specific item in the supply chain.
HP is a member of EPCglobal and Dick Lampman,
HP’s senior vice president
for research and director of HP Labs, is on its Board of Governors.
an early adopter of RFID in our own operations, we can attest to the
tremendous advantage it affords businesses and their customers," says
The work in HP Labs is designed to contribute to RFID’s effectiveness
by creating an intelligent, secure and robust monitoring system, he adds.
"HP Labs has the ability to look beyond RFID at how it can be combined with
other sensing technologies, and how it can be applied in different settings," says
Ian Robertson, director of the RFID program at HP. "It is a core part our