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April 2004

Sensing and sensibility

Taking RFID to the next level

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A Sentient Environment - 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.

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.

HP, 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.

Richer, more accurate data

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.

Keeping goods secure

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.

The sensor network

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.

What’s 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 of heterogeneous 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.

Sentient environments in action

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 placed.

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."

Promoting standards

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.

"As an early adopter of RFID in our own operations, we can attest to the tremendous advantage it affords businesses and their customers," says Lampman.

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 program."

 

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Salil Pradhan
Salil Pradhan, HP’s chief technologist for RFID










































































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