The race is on to see if this hot new technology will be an alternative, or a complement, to RFID
By David Wyld, Contributing Editor
What if there was a technology that one-upped RFID? What if there was a way to have continuous identification, but without the extreme size, cost, and limited life of active RFID? What if there was a way to gain far greater read ranges? What if there was a way to overcome the problems of reading around water and metal that have been the operational “Achilles’ heels” of item-level RFID? That possibility exists today in the form of RuBee. Already heralded by industry observers as “RFID 2.0,” RuBee may be the most exciting development in the automatic identification marketplace. This article is a primer on RuBee and its potential prominent place in the auto-ID market.
RuBee is the commercial name for what is known officially as LWID (Long Wavelength ID), as defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ (IEEE). The moniker was given to the technology by engineers at Miami-based Visible Assets after the Rolling Stones’ song, “Ruby Tuesday.” In June 2006, the IEEE announced that it had formed a working group to begin work on a new visibility network protocol standard, which will be known as IEEE P1902.1™.
The standard, which the IEEE hopes to have in place by the second half of 2007, will provide physical and data-link protocols, based upon RuBee technology.
RFID and RuBee are almost polar opposites in a technological sense. This is because RuBee uses almost exclusively magnetic energy, rather than the electrical – or radio frequency – energy used with HF and UHF RFID. RuBee operates at low frequencies, below 450 kHz and optimally at 132 kHz, which is far below the AM radio band. Because RuBee uses only microwatts of magnetic energy to communicate between the tag and the reader (known as a router, which is simpler in design and lower in cost than RFID readers), RuBee alleviates any of the safety concerns with traditional RFID. Because the technology uses low frequencies that are not attenuated by water and metal, RuBee tags can be read in and around environments that contain high amounts of liquid and metal far more accurately than traditional RFID. RuBee tags have been demonstrated to be readable even when buried underground.
The reading capabilities of RuBee are starkly different than traditional RFID technology. Indeed, the read ranges of RuBee are far higher than UHF and HF RFID. Using volumetric loop antennas (as opposed to dipole for traditional RFID), RuBee has been shown to have a far greater read range than passive RFID tags, with performance estimates ranging from a radius of 8-20 feet (using a 1 square foot antenna) to as high as 100 feet x 100 feet, meaning an possible read range of approximately 10,000 square feet. Today’s RuBee tags are active, in that they are powered by coin-sized lithium batteries that are low cost and have an expected life of between 10 and 15 years. The IEEE P1902.1 standard will also cover passive RuBee tags, which are presently under development, but which would harvest energy and reflect magnetic signals in the same manner as passive RFID tags.
From the viewpoint of Reik Read, lead RFID analyst for Robert W. Baird & Company, “the key downside element of the RuBee technology in comparison to RFID is a slower read rate.” While HF RFID tags can be read today at 100 per second and UHF tags can be read at up to 150 to 200 per second, the read rates for RuBee tags are approximately 6-10 per second. While such read rates will make RuBee impractical for most supply chain and postal/shipping applications, the slower rates could actually work in RuBee’s favor in other venues, such as animal identification, assuring product authenticity, and medical applications. Also, while the read rates are far slower, the read accuracy of RuBee tags has been shown to be superior in tests and pilot applications to EPC-RFID tags, with less susceptibility to ambient noise and other RF signals.
And yet, speed is not everything. According to John Stevens, chair of the IEEE’s P1902.1 Working Group and chairman of Visible Assets Inc., the concept is that “RuBee is a visibility tool, whereas RFID is a tracking tool.” RuBee thus is envisioned as a “visibility” system, providing far more information than the simple tracking of objects or products through an assembly line or in a warehouse. While tracking systems collects data on where an object has been, visibility systems can provide for both a real-time information system on the status of people and objects, as well as historical information on items and an audit trail on objects (which has become extremely important for corporations operating in the United States today in the wake of the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act). As such, RuBee thus presents intriguing technological advantages and conceptual design differences over the traditional EPC-RFID model.
The design of RuBee technology also allows for peer-to-peer communications, not only between tags and routers, but also between tags themselves. With this capability, the tags themselves could be programmed to issue “pair-wise” matching alarms, so that each RuBee tag could be used to provide an alert if an item was shoplifted from a smart shelf in a retail setting or if there was an unauthorized removal of a controlled substance or a high-value item. The P1902.1™ standard will also have a “real-time, tag searchable” protocol for RuBee tags, which will allow for tags to have unique “.tag” URLs associated with them and be searchable via the Internet. As opposed to the EPC model, where tag memory is kept to a minimum and the tag is a pointer to records and info on the tagged item, RuBee tags will be designed to have memory capacity to carry information on the item about the item. As John Stevens recently commented: “If you’ve got 50 items on a conveyor that need to be read in under a second, RFID will work, but if you have a product where you want access to internal records inside a warehouse and want to find out about its history from the day it was born … that’s visibility.” With these capacities however, RuBee tags will cost far less than any competitive active RFID tags presently on the market.
Writing in Computer Power User, Kyle Schurman projected that the market prospects for RuBee are bright because “this new technology should fill in some of the gaps in the market that RFID can’t meet.” Indeed, with its differentiated capabilities, RuBee may be ideally suited for applications in the retail sector, in health care and pharmaceuticals, in animal identification, and in a whole host of areas where traditional RFID has been considered technologically impractical or cost ineffective. In retail, there may even be room in the retail market for RuBee tags to be used in tandem with EPC-RFID tags on high value items, much as has been proposed for the dual use of RFID and bar codes on items for some time to come. RuBee also has promising capabilities for smart asset management.
Thus, at present, we stand at the threshold of a very exciting period in the development of radio – and magnetic – identification technologies. With the finalization of the IEEE protocol standard in the second half of 2007, it is likely that we will see an upsurge of interest and investment in RuBee technology. Already, RuBee has the support of leading technology providers, including:
- Panasonic, and
It also has drawn interest from leading retailers, including Best Buy in the U.S., U.K.-based Tesco, Metro Group in Germany, and France’s CarreFour. However, it is unlikely that RuBee will be, as one industry analyst put it, “the death knell” for RFID. Rather, as veteran RFID analyst Pete Abell with IDC’s Manufacturing Insights recently commented, the emergence of RuBee is proof that “the RFID world, moving forward, is not going to be a one-size-fits-all environment.” Steve Winkler, who is a standards architect for SAP, recently observed that: “There is enough room for peaceful co-existence and even a symbiotic relationship between the two technologies. RuBee can ride the coat-tails of RFID’s popularity to gain adoption, while RFID vendors don’t have to try to be the be-all end-all and can focus on the scenarios to which they are best suited.”
About the author:
David C. Wyld ([email protected]) is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he directs the College of Business’ Strategic e-Commerce/e-Government Initiative and teaches business strategy.