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RFID tags stand guard

RFID chips have been in use for some time to label products for logistical purposes. Researchers have now equipped these RFID tags with sensors that allow the goods to be continuously monitored during transport.

The volume of goods transported worldwide is enormous. Every day, millions of tons of vehicle parts, flat screens, fresh fruit and all kinds of other products are carried around the world by sea, air or road – and the volume is growing. But the journey does not always run smoothly. Car components are sometimes rusty when they arrive at the factory, and refrigerated medicines may be spoiled by the time they reach the wholesaler. In many cases, it is impossible to find the culprit or the error in the transport chain, as the goods pass through too many hands on their way around the globe. These shortcomings are now to be remedied by a collaborative project called TRACK. Led by the Fraunhofer Institute for Physical Measurement Techniques IPM in Freiburg, six industrial companies are developing cost-efficient radio chips equipped with sensors for monitoring transport goods. Similar RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags have been in industrial use for some time for labeling individual components and products. However, these tags rarely perform sensor functions in daily industrial operations, as no sturdy and affordable standard solution has yet been available. “The objective of TRACK is to develop a uniform, cost-efficient RFID chip platform with standardized interfaces to which the necessary sensors can be connected as required,” says IPM project manager Dr. Jürgen Wöllenstein. The challenge lay in developing extremely energy-efficient sensors that would save the tiny batteries in the chips. In addition, the sensor tags had to be made as flexible as a sticker. The TRACK partners have now produced the first prototypes: moisture sensors for monitoring car components susceptible to corrosion, and temperature sensors that watch over the refrigeration of vaccines. In the meantime, light and acceleration sensors have also been integrated to secure air freight containers. These sensors can determine whether the containers have been opened or shaken violently during transport. They continuously record measurement values which they store in the RFID chip, and an integrated clock registers the date and time of each measurement. Recipients can then read out the information conveniently by radio signal. In the event of a complaint, they can find out when and where the damage occurred, and notify the person responsible. The TRACK partners are confident that this combination of conventional transponders and sensors will lead to the final breakthrough of RFID technology. The first practical tests are planned for the coming year.

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