A search for technology that would enable users to find their lost hearing aids piqued a University of Pittsburgh professor’s interest in RFID, but the beneficiaries are not hearing aid customers, but small businesses.
He’s still looking for the hearing aid solution, but in the meantime, small businesses, which normally couldn’t afford RFID research and development, could very well benefit from Dr. Marlin Mickle’s sojourn into the RFID world. His team at the University of Pittsburgh recently announced the success of a joint development effort with ADCUS, Inc., the U.S. based subsidiary of South Korea’s ADChips, to produce customized active RFID tags. This project will enable companies to be able to afford customized RFID tags, he said.
His team consists of three other faculty members–Drs. Alex Jones, Ray Hoare and James T. Cain–and five graduate student assistants.
What got him started on the search for the lost hearing aid got him started in RFID, but, it was a friend’s question about 18 months ago inquiring about how much it would cost to produce a prototype active RFID tag that led to the ADCUS project.
“I said it would cost about $250,000. That stuck with me for several months,” he said. “I thought it should be cheaper.”
Then ADCUS came along. “They said they wanted to get involved in RFID. Initially it was about a reader, but ADCUS has a processor and we wanted to figure out an inexpensive way to program an RFID chip to satisfy standards as in the prototype situation,” he added.
Dr. Mickle, a professor in Pitt’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the Pitt-ADCUS tag generation system will enable smaller companies to inexpensively produce executable code, so that ADChips’ Extensible Instruction Set Computer microprocessor can be used and tailored for various RFID standards and customized scenarios.
“To design a silicon chip today,” said Dr. Mickle, “you typically need a highly skilled and high-salaried engineer to do both the analog and digital circuitry that’s required. Once your chip has been designed, you must take it to a chip foundry to have it produced. The foundry usually will require you to order a minimum number of the chips. That volume of chips tends to very large-too large for smaller companies to afford.
“It’s not yet a final product. We’re demonstrating the prototype using a reader we have developed to debug the tag. So far, it works well,” he added.
According to Dr. Mickle’s understanding, ADCUS intends to market a generic RFID chip/tag to these small- and medium-sized companies. “Companies would not have to pay to create these generic chips from scratch,” he said. “Instead, they would just buy them as ready-made commodities. They could then customize these chips, or pay a programmer to customize them, to meet their own specific needs and those of their customers.”
For example, he added, “If you’re a small company, and you wanted a tag to meet a specific need, and you were able to do that, then you would be able to penetrate that market. But if you have to start off with a blank sheet of paper, that’s very expensive. We’re trying to come up with a mechanism to allow companies to produce their own tags and we’re almost there.”
Another example: “If you wanted a sensor on your tag, you could introduce commands to read the sensor without all the expertise required.”
The team hasn’t yet delivered the final report to ADCUS. “Hopefully that will happen within the next couple of months. Using this type of software, ADCUS would then be able to sell more chips,” he said.
The cost of the active tag? “We’re shooting for something that’s less than $10,” he said. “One of the initial applications is asset management so people can find where things are. Take for example a hospital with their crash carts. They want to know where they are at all times because they’re very expensive. So you tag them.”
He expects ADCUS to “negotiate a license with the university” which would lead to royalties for the college. “For ADCUS, it opened up a new market for them in active tags,” Dr. Mickle added.
While Dr. Mickle has been at the University of Pittsburgh since 1962, he has only been into RFID since 1997. “I started out looking for a mechanism to put in a hearing aid. I’m on the board of a nursing home in Pittsburgh. A lot of times elderly people lay their hearing aids down, and they get lost. My idea was to come up with mechanism to find them. We never really came up with a product using RFID, and then we got into the bigger market of RFID at wholesale and retail.”
Dr. Mickle’s team is just now moving into passive tags. That research, he said, is being funded by the university.
“In the case of passive tags, we’re starting without any particular processor and generating the chip from the bottom up. It will be a brand new chip.” As to the time line, right now he’s not sure, but it will take at least a year for such a tag to be developed.