RFID devices: They aren’t just for the Guns N’ Roses concert

Feb 28, 2017 08.00PM |

by Wan Ting Koh

THE long-awaited Guns N’ Roses concert on Saturday (Feb 25) drew barbs for its poor organisation, from a glitchy sound system, to the snaking queue for food and beverages.

One of the biggest gripes was about the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands that concert-goers needed to pay for food and drinks at the venue. RFID devices, similar to bar codes and magnetic strips, give their objects or users unique serial numbers for easy identification. Apart from the logistics sector, the popular technology has been applied across a range of industries with success.

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On Saturday however, the RFID wristbands failed to impress. Not that the system was faulty; it was just ineffectively used. Some Guns N’ Roses fans at Changi Exhibition Centre didn’t even get to use the bands. They’d queued for at least an hour for food and drinks only to discover that stocks had run out.

To make matters worse, concert organiser LAMC Productions had not intended to refund unused credits that were loaded at the event site, and the online top-up option had closed 48 hours prior to the event. LAMC has since apologised on its Facebook page and promised that it will be refunding unspent RFID credits.

What is RFID?

RFID technology involves the use of radio waves to read and capture information stored on an object’s tag. The tag has a transmitter and a receiver and its RFID component has two parts: a microchip that stores and processes information, and an antenna to receive and transmit a signal.

To read the information encoded on a tag, the reader emits a signal to the tag using an antenna. The tag responds with the information written in its memory bank. The reader will then transmit the results to an RFID computer program.

Security issues

RFID devices require readers to read its data. But unlike bar codes and magnetic strips, which have to be in view to be scanned, RFID allows for a distance of a few feet between the readers and device and can scan the device even if it’s hidden from view.

RFID technology’s ability to work from a distance also means that it poses a security threat to those who carry RFID-enabled documents with sensitive information, such as credit cards and passports, around. According to news articles, pickpockets armed with the right equipment can use RFID technology to steal your credit card or passport information, simply by being close by.

RFID readers, or even mobile phones with the right apps, can do the deed. If a reader or a smartphone with an RFID app is within range, it can pick up the wireless signals transmitted when that card is being used to buy a product.

Experts suggest using RFID wallets that can block signals to store your credit cards. You can also wrap individual cards in aluminium foil to disrupt the signals.

Digital theft aside, here are some other things that make use of RFID technology:

1. Library books

RFID technology is used to keep track of the books, magazines, and audio-visual materials you borrow from the library. It was first introduced in Bukit Batok Community Library in 1998 to reduce the time taken for users to borrow their books.

RFID tags are attached to library items and are activated when users use the self-checkout machines where the item is read, recorded and processed electronically. Through RFID, library queues were shortened without the need for extra staff to help check out library items. The technology was provided by ST LogiTrack, a joint venture between ST Electronics and ST Logistics.

RFID is also used for book drops and book sortings. In March 2012, the National Library Board (NLB) upgraded the RFID system to handle multiple checkouts simultaneously, so users were able to check out up to six items at a time.

2. Pets

Remember how your dogs need to be licensed in Singapore? That includes having them injected with a microchip so that they are traceable in case of a rabies outbreak. Microchips allow lost dogs to be traced back to their owners through their unique identification numbers. When a lost dog is found, the authorities use readers to detect microchips, usually embedded in the loose skin at a dog’s neck. These microchips transmit information by RFID.

The microchip works through emitting a radio code to a reading device which is able to show a 15-digit identification code. If this code is registered with AVA, the owner’s data would be found within AVA’s database.

From May 2001, dogs imported into Singapore were required to have a microchip implanted in them before they get here, in order to help the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) – to tell that the animal is healthy and has been vaccinated.

3. Malaysia’s Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) scheme

Apart from the RM20 (S$6.32) road charge that Malaysia levied on Singapore-registered vehicles entering Malaysia from Nov 1 last year, Malaysia also intends to impose a VEP fee at its two land checkpoints with Singapore.

This scheme, announced as early as July 2014, would require Singapore vehicles to register with Malaysia’s Road Traffic Department and to pay a one-time fee of RM10 to install an RFID chip, which would be valid for five years.

According to Malaysia, each vehicle lane at the checkpoints will be equipped with cameras and sensors to read number plates and RFID tags.

The VEP scheme has been delayed repeatedly due to technical issues and registration was delayed last November as the website discontinued registrations. A quick check of the Road Traffic Department website showed that users can now continue to register for the VEP. It is unclear, however, when the VEP scheme would officially kick off.

The website added that the venue and time for RFID tag collection will be announced through online media at a later date.

4. Tray-return system

Over at One North, Timbre+ hawker centre uses an RFID tray-return system in order to encourage diners to return their trays. Diners pay a $1 deposit for an RFID-tagged tray at food stalls. After they finish their meals, diners get their deposits back when they return their trays to the conveyor belt.

The conveyor belt is equipped with an RFID reader which detects that the tray has been returned. A machine then returns the deposit while the tray is moved to the washing station.

The tray-return system cost $280,000, but thanks to the RFID technology, Timbre+ only needs three cleaners instead of eight, as over 95 per cent of diners return their trays after meals.

5. Clothes 

RFID tags are commonly used for clothes in retail stores to prevent shoplifting. Tags which require special equipment to remove are placed on clothes so that sensors at store entrances can detect merchandise that are removed without being paid for.

While RFID tags are used in retails stores to prevent shoplifting, a gym started applying the same concept to its gym clothes and towels in 2015 to prevent users from “accidentally” bringing home their linen.

Fitness First started tagging its clothes and towels as it was losing some 10 towels a month. These towels cost between $3 and $10 each, depending on their size and quality. The RFID tags work the same way for the gym towels as they do for merchandise at retail stores.

A user who walks out of the club with these RFID-tagged items will trigger alarm beeps and flashing lights at the club entrance so that staff will be alerted.


Featured image RFID Logo by Flickr user Christiaan ColenCC BY-SA 2.0

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