HP: Sensor Networks Next Step For RFID

PALO ALTO — HP opened its new HP Labs RFID Demo Center for a tour on Monday, previewing the next generation of technology. HP is focusing on extending the smart tag technology by incorporating it into sensor networks.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based hardware, software and services behemoth also said it will open an RFID test center in Omaha, Neb.

The tiny transponders known as RFID tags can replace bar codes and automate the supply chain, because the tags automatically transmit their unique ID numbers when they come into range of a reader. Their use by manufacturers got a huge boost with mandates from Wal-Mart Stores and the U.S. Department of Defense that their top 100 suppliers must begin tagging shipments by January 1, 2005.

HP itself has been testing the technology internally for two and a half years, and has 28 RFID-enabled locations, according to Frank Lanza, director of RFID solutions for HP Worldwide. While HP Services consults with its customers about meeting the mandates, back at the lab, they’re working on ways to help suppliers benefit internally.

In the lab, Lanza and Salil Pradhan, CTO for HP’s RFID program, demonstrated how RFID technology could be used in sensor networks to provide more kinds of information about the physical environment of a business.

“One of our fundamental beliefs is that, as the use of [electronic product codes] increases, their usage will spill over into other applications,” Lanza said. Electronic product codes are a system of unique identifiers for individual items under development by EPCglobal, an industry consortium. While bar codes describe a particular kind of product, the electronic product code (EPC) describes a particular example of the product. Trading partners could use sensor networks, EPCs and RFID tracking to know where and under what conditions a shipment was handled.

Pradhan said such a system would produce a supply chain evolution, moving from asset management to “an adaptive and secure supply chain.” These “open loop” supply chains would allow for increased collaboration, partnering and operational efficiencies.

To find these efficiencies, HP technologists are working to provide greater visibility into the physical site. One example on display is “smart racks” for server farms. This implementation combines RFID-tagged individual servers and racks with sensors and readers.

Craig Sayers, an HP research scientist, demonstrated the software/hardware combo. He showed how systems administrators can monitor the installation of racks and servers via a two-dimensional graphical representation that shows, for example, whether a rack door has been opened, when and where a server was moved, or whether a server or rack is hotter than the others. The smart rack hardware/software product is designed for very large data centers, with tens of thousands of servers holding critical information, such as financial institutions.

Compared to having a human walking around monitoring the racks with a barcode reader, Pradhan said, “It’s foolproof. Maybe 10 percent of the time, you can’t find data. How much is that 10 percent worth to you?”

This offering could be available as a product in less than two years, he said.

HP research scientist Malena Mesarina showed off a sensor overlay network that connects RFID readers to inexpensive video cameras via an 802.11b network, code-named SmartLocus. SmartLocus controls and monitors a sensor network of cameras and readers. The cameras provide information, for example, on where items in a warehouse have been moved. An array of cameras spaced around the facility calculate the “time of flight” for a tagged object, the time it takes to move in relation to the cameras.

Another experimental project is WebSign, which combines GPS, a compass and a tilt sensor into a handheld device. The device queries a database of physical location information created by SmartLocus so that the user can point the device at a particular spot and find out what had been there before.

Research scientist Vinay Deolalikar said HP is creating lightweight encryption overlays to protect RFID data. A strategy for guarding the data once it reaches the database involves a method of slicing up the data for storage on separate servers, along with a technique for recreating what’s missing should data on one server be lost.

Lanza said HP will follow other vendors in setting up a test facility where customers can experiment with their own products and a variety of tags, readers and set-ups. HP already helps customers do tests and pilots within their own facilities. This “noisy lab” will let HP customers test various implementations in a controlled environment.

The company will continue to spend heavily to build its RFID expertise, commiting $150 million over the next five years for RFID projects within HP.

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