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What is RFID? A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

What is RFID

RFID is an acronym for Radio-Frequency Identification. This is a technology that uses radio waves to transfer data. 

For it to work, you must have a complete RFID system consisting of:

  • An RFID tag/ label
  • An RFID reader/ interrogator
  • RFID Antenna

The label contains encoded information that can be captured by the reader. However, the tag must be within an acceptable distance for the reader to capture the information. That distance is called the read range

If the tag is within a good read range, it will detect radio waves produced by the reader. As a result, it will release its information to the reader for analysis.  

How RFID Technology Works

As we’ve already indicated, an RFID system consists of the following:

The two components work in tandem. As such, you must always ensure that each of them is in excellent shape if you want to get the best results from your RFID system.

All of its applications are centered on identification (the ability to exchange and authenticate data electronically).

The RFID reader produces radio waves, thus creating an electromagnetic field. If a tag approaches it, itwill receive the waves and release information saved on the tag.

A Brief History of RFID 

Now that you understand RFID technology’s primary working rationale, you could be wondering how it came into existence.

Who was the first person to use the technology, and for what purpose?

Well, RFID technology is relatively old. It dates back to World War II. During this period, the British, Japanese, American, and German armies were all using radar to identify enemies’ planes approaching their territories. 

However, there was a challenge since nobody could differentiate their planes from those of enemies. 

It was not until the Germans realized that if pilots rolled their planes when approaching the radar, they would send different signals. These unique signals would mean that the aircraft was under a German pilot. This technique became the first passive RFID system. 

The British also made an Active Identify Friend/Foe (AIF) system – this became the first active RFID system. The soldiers fixed a transmitter on the planes. This chip/ transmitter would send signals back to the radar identifying the aircraft as either friendly or dangerous. 

To date, RFID uses the same concepts as used by Germans and British. This is how:

  • Passive RFID (Like the German’s Approach at the War). A tag sends a signal to a transponder/ RFID reader, reflecting the signal to pass information. 
  • Active RFID (As used by the British). A tag sends a signal to the transponder, and it broadcasts it, thus exchanging data. 

However, the first RFID technology patent was achieved by Mario W. Cardullo on January 23, 1973.  

An In-Depth Analysis of RFID Technology

To help you understand the nitty-gritty of RFID technology, we will discuss its major components in detail. 


What is an RFID Tag? Well, an RFID tag is one of the most critical components of an RFID system. The tag stores information about a specific individual or asset.

For example,

A tag can store your name, employment number, fingerprints, and any other data useful for identification. Additionally, a tag can store data regarding an asset’s location, the last day of service, and any additional information that would be useful in asset tracking and inventory management. 

A tag consist of two main elements, including:

  • An Antenna. This is a section that receives and transmits signals. When the tag moves within the RFID reader’s read range, the antenna will detect the signals and send back the data. 
  • An Integrated Circuit (IC)/ RFID Chip. This is the part of the tag that stores data. Each IC has four memory banks – User, EPC, TID, and Reserved. 

The RFID tag can be embedded in different materials, including cards, wristbands, employee badges, and key fobs.

Additionally, you should always attach your RFID tag directly to the asset if you want to track/ identify it with ease.  

Types of Tags 

There are three main types of RFID tags. They include:

  • Active. These are potent tags with a transmitter and a battery. Due to these features, they are usually bulkier than passive ones. However, they offer better read ranges (up to 100 meters) and transmission speeds.  
  • Passive. Unlike the active tags, these lack a battery. As such, they are small (1-10 meters) and offers a limited read range. They are also slow in data transmission. 
types of rfid

Also, there exists an improved version of the passive tags. The battery-assisted passive tags have a read range of up to 30 meters and relatively faster data transfer rates. 

How to Select an RFID Tag

When selecting your RFID tag, you should always evaluate your needs. If you want to track items far away from the reader, you should acquire an active one since it has a read range of up to 100 meters. Other available options include passive, low frequency, high frequency, and ultra-high frequency tags.

Other factors to consider are:

  • Price. The cost of the tag depends on its construction, and the volume needed. For example, inlay tags cost $0.09 to $1-75, while the hard tags cost between $1 and $20. If you buy in large volumes, you will get a better price. 
  • Environmental Factors. Is the tag resistant to high temperature, water, and chemicals? Always evaluate your environment and only shop for a tag that can work optimally under the prevailing conditions.
  • Ease of Customization. You should always check whether the tag is read-only (RO) or Read/Write (RW). With RW, you can modify the data regularly. Additionally, you should check the shape and size of your ideal tag. 
  • Method of Attachment. Which attachment technique do you want to use with your RFID tag? Is it adhesives, rivets, or epoxy? Check that the tag you use can be affixed using your ideal methodwithout compromising its functionality. 
  • RFID Readers/ Interrogators 

RFID Reader

An RFID reader is the most crucial part of the RFID system. If this part is defective, then your entire RFID system will not work. 

These interrogators are available in two different types:

  • Fixed RFID Readers. Just like the name suggests, the fixed readers stay at one location. It is usually mounted on a wall or any other surface. While the readers can have an integrated antenna, most of them have an external port where you can connect up to 32 antennas.  
  • Mobile RFID Readers. These devices are portable, and you can move with them to different locations. They are ideal for use in stores where you need to scan RFID tags of hidden items. 

How to Select an RFID Reader

When selecting your reader, you should consider the number of antenna it can hold, connectivity (LAN, Bluetooth, Auxiliary port, Wi-Fi, or USB), and other available utilities (HDMI, USB, Camera, or GPS). 

Additionally, you should check on the affordability. The interrogators cost between $400 and $3000, depending on the features. For example, USB readers are relatively affordable and can cost approximately $400.

RFID Antennas

RFID antennas are responsible for converting the signals released by an interrogator into waves later picked by RFID tags. 

To understand the functionality of antennas, you should check the following definitions:

  • Antenna Gain. The RFID tags’ efficacy to generate enough waves to be detected by tags is called the antenna’s gain. The higher the antenna gain, the more powerful the antenna. 
  • Antenna Polarity. This refers to the ability of the RFID antenna to send radio waves either vertically or horizontally. An antenna can be horizontally linear, vertically linear, or circularly polarized. A circularly polarized one sends waves that continually rotate between the horizontal and the vertical planes.

To get the best read ranges, you should ensure that your antenna’s polarity aligns with that of the RFID tag. 

How to Select an Antenna 

When selecting an antenna, you should consider the following factors:

  • Frequency Range. It can be 860 MHz – 960 MHz, 902 MHz -928 MHz, or 865 MHz -868 MHz.
  • Polarity. Your antenna can be linear or circular. We recommend a linear one that can align with your RFID tag’s polarity. 
  • Read Range. You can either choose Far-Field, or Near-Field read ranges depending on your needs.
  • Price. The antenna price ranges from $50 to $300. Ensures that you get all the features that you need before considering the price. 

Additionally, you should ensure that your antenna is of ideal size and has a straightforward mounting rationale. 

RFID Cables 

RFID antenna cables connect the RFID reader to the RFID antenna. If the cable is defective, the reader will not power. As such, a dysfunctional cable will lead to a nonfunctional RFID system.

When selecting the best RFID cables, you should consider the following factors:

  • Connector Types. You must always ensure that your connector is compatible with your RFID reader. For example, an RFID reader with an RP-TNC female connector requires a cable with an RP-TNC male connector end. 
  • Length. Always ensure that your cable is long enough to allow the reader’s optimum functionality regardless of the location. However, longer cables may result in excessive loss of power. The solution to this is to ensure that the RFID reader and the antenna are relatively closer so that you can use a shorter cable. 
  • Thickness and Insulation Rating. The thicker the cable, the higher the insulation. You should ensure that your cable is well insulated to avoid power loss. The longer it is, the thicker it should be. 

Types of RFID Transmissions

Types of RFID Transmissions

RFID technology uses electromagnetic waves (EW) to transfer data. There are three main frequency ranges within the EW. They include:

  • Low Frequency 
  • High Frequency
  • Ultra-High Frequency

Low-Frequency Transmissions

This is the lowest frequency transmission in the electromagnetic wave. It offers a relatively narrow read range and low transmission speed. Here are its primary unique features:

  • Operates within a 30-300 kHz frequency range. However, most of the tags have a fixed range of either 134 kHz or 125 kHz.
  • They have a read range of approximately 10 cm. A tag that is beyond 10 cm from the reader will not pick the reader’s radio waves. 
  • It cost $0.75 to $5 per tag, and it is widely used for animal tracking, car key-fob, and access control. They are also ideal for use on metallic assets and liquid environment.

While low-frequency tags are relatively affordable, they offer limited memory and a low data transmission rate. As such, they are not ideal if you want a fast data transmission rate. 

High-Frequency Transmissions 

This transmission category is ideal when your assignment demands a relatively wide read distance. The tags using the high frequency can detect radio waves from a reader 30 cm away. 

Their primary frequency range is 13.56 MHz, and they cost between $0.2 and $10 per tag. This frequency meets all the global standards making it ideal for personal identification, library management, and access control.

Additionally, the high-frequency transmission is applied in the Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. 

Ultra-High Frequency 

Despite the availability of super-high and extremely high frequencies, the ultra-high frequency is the highest frequency used in RFID. It works the best in a frequency range of 300-3000 MHz, with primary frequencies of 860-960 MHz and 433 MHz 

This frequency can be categorized further into:

  • Active RFID. These tags will use a range of 433 MHz. In rare cases, the active RFID applies an extremely high frequency range of up to 2.45 GHz. It has a read range of up to 100 meters and costs between $25 and $50. Its read range is ideal for tracking vehicles and use in the mining & construction industry. However, it does not work well in metallic and liquid environments. 
  • Passive RFID. The technology uses 860 to 960 MHz and has a read range of up to 25 meters. It costs $0.09-$20 per tag and can be used in the manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, electronic, race timing, and supply chain sectors. They have a high data transmission rate. 

RFID Standards 

Understanding RFID standards will help you to choose the best product for your business. It will also offer useful insights into the industry’s regulations. 

What are RFID Standards? 

RFID guidelines are the standards that enable one manufacturer to make products compatible with those of a different manufacturer. For example, a tag made by manufacturer A should work well with a reader made by manufacturer B. 

The RFID guidelines also regulate how communication between the reader and the tag occurs.

Importance of RFID Standards 

Having standard regulations in the RFID industries make the use of RFID products easy. Here are some of the key benefits of RFID standardization:

  • Development of Complementary Products. All RFID products are made using the same standards and are thus complementary. 
  • Enhanced Competition. RFID standards help to expand the market and increase competition. As a result, the prices of standardized products will be fair. 
  • Boosts the Users Confidence. When you use a standardized product, you’ll be sure that the quality and functionality are top-notch. 

Who Sets RFID Regulations? 

Two international organizations regulate the RFID industry. They include:

  • International Standards Organization (ISO)
  • Electronics Product Code Global Incorporated (EPCglobal)

In 1996, ISO partnered with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) to regulate the use of RFID technology. Later, the ISO/IEC formed the Joint Technical Committee (JTC). 

The committee was mandated with addressing various RFID issues, including air interface & associated protocols, data content & formatting, and conformance testing. 

Besides these international regulatory bodies, there are regional and national RFID standardization committees. The major ones are:

  • ETSI

ETSI stands for the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. The body has the mandate to set standards for radio wave communication channels in Europe. 

  • FCC 

FCC stands for the Federal Communications Commission. The body is in charge of regulating the use of radio waves for communication in the United States. 

Since Europe and the US were the pioneers in regulating the RFID technology, most countries have adopted their standards. Only a few states, such as Armenia, have developed their independent standard. 

RFID Applications 

RFID Applications

RFID technology has many applications. It is mainly an essential element of defense systems in many governments globally. Other crucial applications include:

  • Inventory Management. It doesn’t matter whether you’re managing a supermarket, a manufacturing plant, or a retail business; RFID technology will simplify inventory management! 
  • Asset Tracking. The RFID technology allows you to track your location. This way, you’ll be able to know when they move out of the permitted areas, thus curbing theft.
  • Personnel Tracking. Human resource managers use RFID to track their personnel. They can get data on attendance, performance, and many other elements without a hassle. 
  • Access Control. If you want to limit the number of people who can access a particular room, you can use RFID technology. All authorized employees will have a tag to help them access the place. 
  • Identification. The RFID technology is used in libraries, government offices, and many other institutions for ease of identification.
  • Animal Tracking. The low-frequency tags have global standards recognition for use in livestock tracking. They attach well to animals’ tissue, thus making them the best tracking tags.
  • Anti-Counterfeiting. In the pharmaceutical sector, manufacturers use RFID technology to authenticate their products. 

Other uses of the RFID technology include supply chain management, race timing, trolling, event attendance tracking, vehicle tracking, and real-time location. 

You may consider other RFID equipment, including RFID portals, RFID printers, RF power mappers, and GPIO adapters. 

Essential Things to Know Before Buying an RFID System

Investing in the right RFID system can be costly. You may end up spending up to $3500! As such, you should undertake extensive needs research to ensure that the system will benefit your business.

  • Consider Return on Investment. Is installing an RFID system a necessity for your business? Will it boost sales and enhance efficacy? Before you start the installation process, you should undertake an application and cost feasibility study. Only buy it if you’re convinced that you have a scope big enough to be managed using the technology. This way, you’ll be guaranteed a return on investment.
  • Cost of Operation. You should evaluate both fixed and recurring expenses. Fixed costs may include buying the RFID reader, RFID tags, and RFID printers. On the other hand, recurrent expenditure may consist of purchasing printer ribbons, RFID inlay, and software renewal. After accessing all your costs, the report should prove that the investment is viable. 
  • Check Your Environment. RFID systems can be affected by your environment. Before you step out to install RFID, ensure that it is compatible with your environment. This way, you’ll avoid buying RFID components that will not function optimally. For example, some RFID tags will not work well on metallic surfaces. As such, you should avoid it if you want to track a metallic asset. 
  • Consider Personnel Requirement. Remember that your RFID system’s efficacy will depend on how well the exchange of data between a tag and a reader is executed. As such, you should engage a professional to test the best location and installation protocols for the device. Additionally, you should get an expert’s advice on the best techniques to ensure that the technology works optimally. 

Investing in an RFID system can be a game-changer. However, whether you reap the benefits will depend on how well you execute the project. 

Considering that RFID technology is relatively new for many people, we prepared this comprehensive beginner guide to guide your every step of RFID system implementation. 

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