What Is Radio Frequency Identification?


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology helps users retrieve data stored directly on electronic chips attached to or embedded within objects, containers or even living creatures. RFID tags contain data that identify, track or select whatever they are attached to. RFID tags provide data about items being shipped, stored or sold or maintained.


  • There are two types of RFID technologies, active and passive. Active RFID tags produce their own radio signals. Passive tags reflect or modify a carrier signal from an outside reader called and interrogator. Active tags have their own power source. Passive tags don't.


  • RFID systems read data stored on electronic tags with electronic chips embedded in them. Electronic readers emit a radio signal. The signal activates a tag. RFID tags, when activated by the electronic reader, transmit data to the reader and, if it is an active tag, may also receive and store data on the chip.

Transceiver with decoder

  • The reader is attached to a computer. As products or items are read by the reader, the data is decoded and transmitted to the computer system that stores and processes data collected by the RFID readers.


  • The computer system receives data from the transceiver and records the item's ID or data stored in the chip, it's location, time of reading or other information about whatever is being tracked.

RFID Tags (Transponder)

  • Each RFID tag contains an Electronic Product Code (EPC), a unique number
    that identifies the tagged object. Tags are clipped on, embedded in a stick-on label, wristband, clothing and even under the skin. Tags contain a silicon chip and sometimes a power source and may be imprinted with a bar code. When the tag comes within range of a reader, they are activated. Active tags broadcast a signal, while passive tags reflect or modify the reader signal.

RFID Systems

  • Radio frequency identification is wireless and works together with a company or organization's information technology system. The RFID works like a Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) or Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), but deliver more accurate data about items that need to be tracked.

The Future

  • RFID tags may one day allow you to load up your shopping cart and roll it out through an RFID tag reader without having to check out. Scientists are already using increasingly smaller active RFID tags to track animal migrations and to tag individual specimens for study. Libraries have begun to tag books and drug manufacturers are tracking medicines. Toll booths are being eliminated thanks to drive-by RFID tag readers. Pet owners can implant their animals so they can be returned if lost. Health care providers are even looking into using active implanted RFID tags in patients to improve health care record keeping.

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  • Photo Credit All images (c) 2009 by Tom King
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