The much-hyped market for RFID (radio frequency identification) has received a boost in the form of an open-source system that enables large numbers of the tags to be read in a confined area.
The tags - tiny chips with a unique ID and antenna - can be attached to products to act as a tracking device and are tipped to supercede barcodes. They should allow for better stock systems and hence reduced costs. However, with a large number of tags in a small area, the issue of interference has become an important one.
Magellan Technologies, however, has developed what it claims to be a world-first in RFID (radio frequency identification) technology that allows many closely bunched tags to be uniquely identified without interference. And it has taken the open source route using Linux-based readers and an open source application interface.
Magellan's software manager Jeff Gray said the decision to adopt Linux was due to cost and interoperability. "We used to use proprietary real-time operating systems for our tag readers but the hardware support lagged and the networking layers became expensive," Gray said. "Linux offers us huge flexibility, network connectivity, has good hardware support, and a range of development tools."
Magellan, based in Sydney, is a technology company that develops RFID software and systems then licenses it to manufacturers. The company's RFID readers are developed with standard computer components, such as embedded 586 processors, 16MB of flash disk, and 20MB of RAM.
After looking at some of the commercial embedded Linux distributors, Gray decided to "roll his own" custom Linux distribution with applications from the Linux community's Busybox project which is a suite of lightweight Linux applications. "The custom Linux operating system uses a 2.2 series kernel and a kernel 2.4 upgrade is under development," Gray said.
"Our reader API (application programming interface) is written in Python and the source code is released to manufacturers. This gives them good insurance as to the control over the software and allows them to design their own circuits."
Gray has been more than happy with the quality of Python API but will re-write the "speed sensitive" portions of the software in C++. "The readers function as IP network devices and therefore can be monitored and managed by any networked PC," he said. "It is also possible to deploy flash updates to the readers remotely."
Most of Magellan's intellectual property, called Stack Tag, is in the RFID tags, which Gray described as a "world-leading design". "Stack Tag was designed for high-speed conveyer systems and that's how we started out," he said. "Our tags can reply on eight different channels as opposed to one for most tags, don't interfere with each other, and can receive information to the 100 bytes of on-chip memory."
Gray said this two-way communication enables the data on the tag to be changed on the fly. "For example, a courier company might write a timestamp on the tag at a particular time and place within a delivery," he said. "There is nothing in the chip that is stopping further development and the new ones will have ten-times more memory." Stack Tag can scale out to thousands of tags per reader, Gray said.
Magellan's vice president of business development Ken Laing demonstrated each of 100 tags packed together like business cards being uniquely identified in a few seconds when passed through the reader. "There has been a lot of talk about companies 'trialling' RFID technology this year, but our systems are being used in production today," Laing said. "For example, a jewelry store in the U.S.is using Stack Tag to quickly account for their diamonds. We also have a number of proof-of-concept projects in the medical industry for tracking syringes, tablets and blood bags."
Locally, Magellan is working with Infineon and sees document management as one of the potential applications over the next three months.