Tag Teams: Best-in-Class RFID Applications
Shown is the Appalachia Dam, part of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which is using RFID to control access to the dam and other TVA properties.
Industries around the world are finding new use uses for RFID, and as the technology matures and prices drop, it becomes a more affordable option for applications like access management.
Most global organizations today require an access control system for enhanced security in restricted areas, tracking employee activity, improving loss prevention and complying with internal or government-regulated security measures post 9-11.
RFID has proven itself over other access control solutions like barcodes, magnetic stripes and proximity readers, which pros say relay on the user to either make contact or place the badge very close to the reader. In addition, in the case of barcodes, they can only be read one at a time and often it is difficult to update embedded information.
RFID badges, on the other hand, can be read from much further distances than other traditional technologies and the embedded electronic information for each badge can be over-written repeatedly. The increased reading distance enables other tracking technologies like surveillance cameras to be activated in conjunction with an employee being in their vicinity. Furthermore, multiple RFID badges can be read simultaneously. Information about employee access, attendance, and duties performed, can be easily and efficiently monitored and stored in a database. Based on these advantages, ABI Research expects that access control, which currently constitutes 61 percenet of the current RFID market, will grow 6 percent annually through 2014.
One potential drawback about implementing RFID in the area of security has been cost. According to Frost & Sullivan, the cost of RFID hardware is still considered high and many companies are hesitant to invest in the technology fearing poor return on investment (ROI). A full-fledged system can set a large company back about $10 million to $25 million.
The cost of tags depends on the quantity ordered, the type of IC and antenna used, the read range required, the intelligence of readers required to read the information on the tags, and the ability to read multiple tags at one go. Aside from the cost of tags and readers, other expenditures include middleware, application software, and system integration costs.
A Good Deal for TVA
“While it’s always important to consider costs and ROI, costs sometimes take a back seat to security and protecting your assets,” says David Jolley, vice president of Police and Physical Security for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which was part of FDR’s New Deal. This federally owned corporation in the United States was created by congressional charter in May 1933 to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing and economic development in the Tennessee Valley, a region particularly affected by the Great Depression. Today, TVA is the nation’s largest public power company, providing electric power to over nine million customers in the Tennessee Valley. It acts primarily as an electric power wholesaler, selling to 156 retail power distributors and 56 directly served industrial or government customers. Power comes from dams providing hydroelectric power, fossil fuel plants, nuclear power plants, combustion turbines, wind turbines and solar panels.
“If you just look at costs, cost always wins, but if you do a good risk-based analysis, you can make a good case to spend the money and justify the expenditure,” Jolley says.
This was the tactic TVA took when embarking upon an RFID installation. Three years ago Jolley decided that RFID would be a necessary in carrying out its security policies. Two areas that would most benefit from RFID were identified: Gate access and the executive garage. Hundreds of trucks enter the TVA gates on a daily basis. A system of security guards and padlocks had once been in charge of gate access, but Jolley says this often choked up the flow of traffic as employees had to unlock the gate each time a truck needed to pass. “Also, it was not uncommon for gates to be left open and employees would forget to relock the padlocks.”
A card reader was not an ideal solution for TVA, because as Jolley explains, all of the trucks, vans, and work vehicles entering the site are different heights. “It would have been difficult to mount a card reader in a location convenient to all the drivers,” he says.
Ultimately, an RFID solution was installed from Nedap, consisting of a card reader posted to the gate and a single-ID Window Button that suctions to the inside of a vehicle’s windshield. The long-range reader quickly identifies the vehicle, enabling the gate to open.
As drivers pass through the gate, their information is automatically uploaded to an access control system, which keeps track of which vehicles are on the premises. Upon their exit, the access control system is once again updated.
Another critical area that required RFID was TVA’s executive garage. “This is a restricted access area that was once secured with a card reading system,” says Jolley. “But we found that the time it took for the card to be read was too long for an executive to be sitting in their vehicle unprotected.”
Once again, the long-range RFID reader and Window Button system was installed. The reader can pick up the button’s signal up to 30 feet away and alerts the gate to open as the car approaches, eliminating any waiting time.
TVA currently has more than 250 RFID devices installed and Jolley expects that other truck gates will soon be outfitted with the system as well.
Buses that enter the New Quito Bus Terminal in Ecuador have a Dual ID tag mounted on them, which lets terminal security identify the bus and its driver. Information is automatically updated in a database to maintain a comprehensive list of all authorized buses and drivers.
ID Checks for Buses and Planes
Like TVA, the New Quito Bus Terminal in Ecuador is no stranger to heavy foot traffic. Known to locals as Terrestre Quitumbe, the terminal has deployed RFID readers at all the main gates to keep track of the 1,000 buses, taxis, and cargo vehicles entering and leaving the terminal daily. Located in the far south of Quito, the terminal services all the buses traveling anywhere south of the city.
According to Mirna Mendoza, an infrastructural engineer for the Municipality of Quito, the terminal invested $1 million in an RFID vehicle identification system, which ensures only authorized vehicles or passengers enter or leave the premises.
From an access control standpoint, all vehicles servicing the terminal have a Dual ID tag mounted on them, which lets the system identify the bus and its driver. Information is automatically updated in a database to maintain a comprehensive list of all authorized buses and drivers.
“As a long range, hands free solution it allows improved security control over proximity or PIN pad access while maintaining high throughput at access gates, so as not to contribute to delays,” says Mendoza.
When the drivers and buses enter the facility, their arrival is registered and they are directed to a staging lot where they are required to pay for access to the terminal before being assigned and sent to a loading area. At the point of payment, audit control is assisted through the coupling of driver and bus as each driver is individually responsible for this through their affiliation with their busing company.
“In the past, there were problems with proper ID and claims of non-compliance as drivers at times might misrepresent themselves in order to subvert this process,” says Mendoza. “The new system eliminated this possibility.”
As a further measure of defense, the Dual ID is checked again when the bus enters the loading area, ensuring that the proper bus and driver enter the assigned slot for their assigned route. This arrival is tied to a scheduling system, which displays the arrival of the conveyance and its appointed departure time. “The result has been a great improvement in payment compliance and greatly improved efficiency of the traffic flow at the facility,” says Mendoza.
Like bus stations, securing airports is somewhat difficult. Travelers have been outspoken about full-body scanning, leaving security personnel to seek out other less invasive forms of identification. One such system – Defense ID was recently issued a patent – is being recommended for airport testing by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to prevent known terrorists on watch lists from boarding planes.
The technology allows information on two or more documents to be compared in order to determine whether the information is the same on each. For instance, the name on a driver’s license can now be compared automatically with the name on an airline boarding pass held by the same person.
According to a statement made by the selection committee: “The ability to quickly scan and compare two or more forms of ID can make traveling through airports safer, as it serves to verify the identity of the ID holder while moving security lines along more quickly. As a security measure, it is far less invasive than full-body scanning.”
RFID Delivers for Hospitals
Like airports, it is commonplace for hospitals to incorporate RFID tags and readers near elevators and exits to prevent unauthorized movement within a facility. According to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 47 percent of U.S. infant abductions occur in hospitals.
At Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, N.H., the Accutech Cuddles infant security system made the nursing staff’s job easier, protected the infants, and added peace of mind for the parents. Cuddles is based on active RFID technology, whereby tags embedded in a band tied to baby’s ankle incorporate skin sensing technology. When the band is removed or cut from the baby’s body, antennas placed throughout the facility pick up the alarm signal and relay it to a centralized alarm at the nursing station and on computer software. Usually the facility incorporates locks, and the hospital unit will go into a “lockdown mode” when a band alarm or attempted unauthorized exit occurs.
The system interfaces with existing systems in the hospital so that when the tagged infant’s cradle approaches a door, a surveillance camera near the exit can be triggered. In addition, the alarm can be exported from the Cuddles software to nurse call pagers, letting them know which baby is creating the alarm.
St. John’s Children’s Hospital, Springfield, Ill., has just deployed an RFID-enabled security system to protect newborns and children up to 18 years old. The system, provided by RF Technologies, covers three of the facility’s six floors, as well as an outdoor play area in the center of the hospital’s fifth floor, which has a two-story-high atrium open to the sky. St. John’s has 80 beds, and averages approximately 1,600 admissions each year.
The system, known as the Safe Place Infant/Child Security Solution, replaced St. John’s previous RF-enabled security system, which has been prone to false alarms since its installation in 1998, when the hospital opened, according to a written statement by John Mosher, St. John’s security manager.
Safe Place features dual-frequency transmitters embedded in wrist and ankle bracelets – active RFID tags that periodically emit signals. Doorway interrogators pick up the tags’ 262 kHz transmissions, while readers deployed elsewhere within a facility receive their 318 MHz signals.
The bracelets are equipped with tamper-proof technology that transmits an alert if a band is cut, or if an individual attempts to remove it, effectively breaking the connection. As the connection is severed, the bracelet sends one last “dying signal” to the nearest reader, which then transmits that tag’s ID number, along with the location of the receiver that picked up the dying signal, to a back-end server. RF Technologies’ software then interprets that information, enabling the system to sound an audible alarm at nurses’ stations, and to contact the staff’s cell phones.
If someone attempts to take an infant or child wearing a bracelet through a protected doorway or other point of exit, the system will automatically trigger an audible alarm. Employees can then view computer screens to determine in which zone the patient is located, as well as that person’s identity.
Twenty-eight 262 kHz readers at St. John’s were installed at doorways, as well as at entrances and exits to stairways and elevators. Eighty-three 318 MHz receivers, meanwhile, were installed throughout the other areas – three floors of the hospital that house labor and delivery, as well as the neonatal intensive care and pediatrics units. The 318 MHz receivers are used primarily to verify that the tags are functioning properly
Hospital workers can log onto any computer – including bedside computers – by entering their user names and passwords, or by swiping their ID badges through a magnetic-stripe reader connected to the computer. Pediatric patients arriving at the hospital receive bracelets upon admission, at which point the tag’s unique ID number is correlated with the child’s last name. When a baby is born at the hospital, nurses place a bracelet on that child in the mother’s recovery room, then enter the information into the software without having to leave the room.
St. John’s is employing 100 RFID-enabled bracelets. Since installing the system a year ago, St. John’s has experienced very few false alarms and the hospital has never had any incidents of patients being removed without authorization from the facility.
As the economy begins to show signs of recovery, RFID technology is expected to play a more vital role in security applications. As companies continue to place great value on knowing where their assets – both product and people – are located and if they are safe, the demand for RFID adoption is expected to take off. A recent ABI Research study revealed that 65 percent of respondents were piloting, deploying, or had already deployed an RFID-based asset tracking and/or access management systems.
“Perhaps that should not be surprising after all, considering such systems’ stellar ROI performance, with many break-even points measured in months, not years,” comments Mike Liard, research director for ABI. “Most people assume the savings will be in ‘soft money’: The ability to reduce employees’ time spent on this kind of work. But deployments that have been carried through to completion are delivering surprising returns in ‘hard’ money: Lower capital expenditures and less inventory shrinkage.”