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RFID's Competition is RuBee

Remember 10 minutes ago, when RFID was the state of the art in tagging and tracking inventory? John Stevens believes there is something better on the table now.

Stevens -- chair of the IEEE RuBee Working Group -- says the low-cost, low-frequency RuBee standard already is driving intelligent, versatile tracking devices.

Known in colorful IEEE language as 1902.1, RuBee promises to fill the gaps left by RFID. Unlike RFID tags, which operate in the radio realm, RuBee uses almost wholly magnetic waves. The net result is a signal that is not interrupted by liquid and is scarcely impacted by metal, which interferes significantly with radio signals.

With a battery life of 10 years or more on inexpensive lithium batteries, Stevens says, RuBee tags can be networked in order to give a real-time, dynamic picture of the location and status of inventory or individuals.

Stevens has a vested interest in the success of RuBee. In addition to chairing the working group, he also chairs Miami-based Visible Assets, a company that sells asset-tracking solutions. The company already has three major RuBee deployments.

On the healthcare side, one customer is using RuBee tags to track medical devices. “We do a physical inventory every five or 10 minutes, 24 hours a day -- in some cases, that can include thousands of items in a single shelf,” Stevens says. Also plugged into the system are personnel ID cards that can register who is moving an item and at what time.

Stevens is also working at four Department of Energy (DoE) sites to track high-value assets and to ensure that employees keep their cell phones off-site. “Cell phones are a major security threat on any site, and with a RuBee tag we can see you as you walk through a door and remind you that you have your phone with you,” Stevens says.

The DoE sites also make use of processors embossed on ID tags. These processors encrypt data so that IT managers on the inside can track employees, while snoopers outside cannot read any ID information off the cards.

Less glamorous but arguably just as important is a Visible Assets livestock tracking project with the USDA. “All the USDA livestock programs require that different livestock be tracked, including cows that give milk: 'this cow is a good producer,' 'this cow is not a good producer,'” Stevens says.

Unlike other readers, RuBee allows for passive polling. To get counted, an animal need only approach a grain feeder or water source. “We can tell you when they came up there and how long they stayed, who likes who, who is the boss of the herd,” Steven says.

Visible Assets claims to be the only company producing RuBee-based products, though Stevens says it will be licensing the technology soon.

In the meantime, the company is playing things close to the vest, producing and distributing nearly all RuBee components on its own, including chips, routers, tags, and even a RuBee-related server designed to make people and assets visible in real time. Why control the supply chain? “When you get two people doing two different things, the probability of failure only goes up,” Stevens says.

As the working group gets down to business, Stevens believes adoption of RuBee should begin to gain momentum. “The challenge every new person has is that this is new physics, this is complicated stuff, it’s a new way of doing things,” he says. As a standard develops, some of those hurdles may become easier to surmount.

Beyond technology, Stevens predicts the working group will be largely application-driven. For example, “one of the big ones will be loyalty and identity cards in industries where there are safety issues and other issues,” he says.

While users press for more visibility in these areas, however, there may be equal pressure in the direction of privacy. Operators may want to know who is standing where at any given moment, but privacy proponents will likewise want to see some integrity with regard to people’s personal space.

Regarding the effort to balance these twin demands, Steven says, “that’s an area that we see as being potentially explosive right now.”