Mature RFID technology could drive fledgling smart cities

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A bicyclist speeds down the road toward a busy intersection, showing no signs of slowing down.

A toddler playing in the yard ambles out into a traffic-filled street.

Today, both scenarios would likely end in disaster. But in smart, interconnected cities of the future, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in the cyclist’s or child’s clothing could trigger traffic signals, averting catastrophe.

Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are working to bring tomorrow’s smart cities closer to reality, and their work is earning national recognition. In April 2018, for example, Yuchen Gu, a junior double-majoring in electrical engineering and film, presented a smart city concept for traffic safety at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on RFID in Orlando, Florida.

“The conference was amazing,” says Gu. “I talked to a lot of people from industry and academia about the state-of-the-art RFID technology.”

Gu traveled to Orlando to compete in the 2018 IEEE Educational Megachallenge, which asked teams to identify a specific city with a problem that could be amenable to smart city solutions, and then devise a means to improve conditions using RFID technology. Gu worked under the mentorship of Dan van de Weide, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Marcos Martinez, a postdoctoral scholar in van der Weide’s lab.

Drawing on their own experiences bike-commuting in Madison—all three members of the team are endurance athletes who regularly participate in triathlons—Gu, Martinez, and van der Weide devised a system of RFID reflectors for cyclists and pedestrians to improve traffic safety.

“We started with that idea: What if I can trigger the traffic light with RFID?”

Beyond making commutes safer and more convenient for cyclists, the concept could help prevent toddlers from wandering into traffic. By incorporating a lightweight, inexpensive RFID tag into a child’s clothing, parents could set up sensor systems around their yards to help keep tabs on their kids.

Gu, Martinez and van der Weide created a prototype person-detection system with sensors and RFID tags. At the conference, Gu presented their work to a panel of seven judges, who then interrogated him about why RIFD is the best tool for the task in a “Shark-Tank” style question-and-answer session.

RFID is a relatively inexpensive technology, with each tag currently costing no more than 10 cents. The small tags don’t require a power source, and they function akin to supermarket barcodes: Each has a unique identity that can be recognized by a reader. Unlike a barcode, however, RFID readers can detect tags from afar without a direct line of sight.

“That’s the cool part of RFID tags,” says Gu. “You don’t have to carry a battery or a microchip. It’s a passive device, you don’t need to take care of it. I think that’s a lot easier for many daily life applications.”

Already, RFID technology is being implemented in corporate warehouses for inventory control; for example, at the conference, a representative from Boeing described how a tagging system saved the company several million dollars’ worth of lost parts over the course of a year. Other companies, like the clothing retailer H&M, are developing strategies to weave RFID into textiles so that clothing can come with built-in tags.

“It’s great for them because they can track their inventory, and it is great for us because that’s a lot of data,” says Gu.

Smart cities need vast amounts of data to function. The concept envisions urban areas that collect data from citizens, devices and infrastructure to optimally manage resources like transportation systems or utilities. Collecting and processing all that information is no easy task, but RFIDs could help make substantial strides.

“RFID is a mature technology, it’s fast, it’s robust, it’s cheap, and the computing complexity is much less than image processing,” says Gu.

Gu hopes to keep working on RFID after his graduation in 2019. He also hopes to leverage his talents as a filmmaker to help encourage more widespread adoption of RFID.

“A scientist encouraging people to use new technology is similar to a director making a film. It’s storytelling, says Gu. “As engineers, we are not only the pioneers and trailblazers for technology, we are also the bridge to bring new technology to the public.”

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