In 2008 I purchased my first toll road RFID transponder, letting me drive through and pay my toll without stopping at a booth. This was my first real-life exposure to RFID, and it was magical. Back then, all I knew was that RFID stood for “radio frequency identification” and that it exchanged data between a transmitter and receiver using radio waves. That’s enough for a highway driver, but you’ll need more information to use RFID in an industrial automation setting. So here are some basics on what makes up an RFID system and the uses of different radio frequencies.
At a minimum, an RFID system comprises a tag, an antenna, and a processor. Tags, also known as data carriers, can be active or passive. Active tags have a built-in power source, and passive tags are powered by the electromagnetic field emitted by the antenna and are dormant otherwise. Active tags have a much longer range than passive tags. But passive tags are most commonly used in industrial RFID applications due to lower component costs and no maintenance requirements.
Low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), ultra-high frequency (UHF)
The next big topic is the different frequency ranges used by RFID: low frequency (LF), high frequency (HF), and ultra-high frequency (UHF). What do they mean? LF systems operate at a frequency range of 125…135 kHz, HF systems operate at 13.56 MHz, and UHF systems operate at a frequency range of 840…960 MHz. This tells you that the systems are not compatible with each other and that you must choose the tag, antenna, and processor unit from a single system for it to work properly. This also means that the LF, HF, and UHF systems will not interfere with each other, so you can install different types of RFID systems in a plant without running a risk of interference or crosstalk issues between them or any other radio communications technology.
Choosing the correct system frequency?
How do you choose the correct system frequency? The main difference between LF/HF systems and UHF systems is the coupling between the tags and the antenna/processor. LF and HF RFID systems use inductive coupling, where an inductive coil on the antenna head is energized to generate an inductive field. When a tag is present in that inductive field, it will be energized and begin communications back and forth. Using the specifications of the tag and the antenna/processor, it is easy to determine the read/write range or the air gap between the tag and the antenna head.
The downside of using LF/HF RFID technology based on inductive coupling is that the read/write range is relatively short, and it’s dependent on the physical size of the coils in the antenna head and the tag. The bigger the antenna and tag combination, the greater the read/write distance or the air gap between the antenna and the tag. The best LF and HF RFID uses are in close-range part tracking and production control where you need to read/write data to a single tag at a time.
UHF RFID systems use electromagnetic wave coupling to transmit power and data over radio waves between the antenna and the tag. The Federal Communications Commission strictly regulates the power level and frequency range of the radio waves, and there are different frequency range specifications depending on the country or region where the UHF RFID system is being used. In the United States, the frequency is limited to a range between 902 and 928MHz. Europe, China, and Japan have different operating range specifications based on their regulations, so you must select the correct frequency range based on the system’s location.
Using radio waves enables UHF RFID systems to achieve a much greater read/write range than inductive coupling-based RFID systems. UHF RFID read/write distance range varies based on transmission power, environmental interference, and the size of the UHF RFID tag, but can be as large as 6 meters or 20 feet. Environmental interferences such as metal structures or liquids, including human bodies, can deflect or absorb radio waves and significantly impact the performance and reliability of a UHF RFID system. UHF RFID systems are great at detecting multiple tags at greater distances, making them well suited for traceability and intralogistics applications. They are not well suited for single tag detection applications, especially if surrounded by metal structures.
Because of the impact an environment has on UHF signals, it is advisable to conduct a full feasibility study by the vendor of the UHF RFID system before the system solution is purchased to ensure that the system will meet the application requirements. This includes bringing in the equipment needed, such as tags, antennas, processors, and mounting brackets to the point of use to ensure reliable transmission of data between the tag and the antenna and testing the system performance in normal working conditions. Performing a feasibility study reduces the risk of the system not meeting the customer’s expectations or application requirements.
Selecting an industrial RFID system
There are other factors to consider when selecting an industrial RFID system, but this summary is a good place to start:
- Most industrial RFID applications use passive RFID tags due to their lower component costs and no battery replacement needs.
- For applications requiring short distance and single tag detection, LF or HF RFID systems are recommended.
- For applications where long-distance and multi-tag detection is needed, UHF RFID systems are recommended.
- If you are considering UHF, a feasibility study is highly recommended to ensure that the UHF RFID system will perform as intended and meet your requirements.
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