RuBee Offers an Alternative to RFID

The new IEEE protocol is supported by retailer Best Buy plus HP, IBM, NCR, Sony, Panasonic and Motorola, so it's expected to get serious consideration.

The IEEE has started work on a new protocol—a standard called IEEE 1902.1 also known as RuBee—that is expected to give retailers and manufacturers an attractive alternative to RFID for many applications, especially item-level efforts.

Officials say they expect products based on the protocol to be available within 12 to 18 months.

The initial backers of RuBee being considered as a protocol include industry heavyweights from both the retail side—including the U.S.s Best Buy, U.K.-based Tesco and Germanys Metro Group—plus technology vendors including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Sony, Panasonic, Motorola and NCR, said Pete Abell, a veteran RFID analyst now working for IDCs Manufacturing Insights. Paris-based CarreFour is also supporting the effort, Abell said.

"The horsepower behind this one is pretty significant," Abell said.

RuBee "definitely has a major place. The RFID world moving forward is not going to be a one-size-fits-all."

/zimages/2/28571.gifIs RuBee giving frustrated RFID proponents a face-saving way out? Our columnist thinks it is. To read more, please click here.

IEEE officials paint RuBee as not a wholesale replacement for RFID, but merely an alternative technology that may be better suited for specific applications. Indeed, RuBee is close to a scientific opposite of todays typical RFID technology.

John Stevens is chairman of the 1902.1 working group and is also chairman of Visible Assets.

Visible Assets began the RuBee effort and made the proposal to IEEE after gaining the support of several key retailers and technology vendors, Stevens said.

A traditional 900MHz RFID approach "is 99.99 percent radio signal and 0.01 magnetic/inductive. What [RuBee] is doing is 99.99 percent magnetic. There is no radio signal in these tags at all," Stevens said.

"All RFID tags are backscattered transponders. RuBee is an active transceiver."

An IEEE statement described RuBee as being "a bidirectional, on-demand, peer-to-peer, radiating, transceiver protocol operating at wavelengths below 450 Khz. This protocol works in harsh environments with networks of many thousands of tags and has an area range of 10 to 50 feet."

The "harsh environment" reference is key to RuBees appeal, as RFIDs struggles with getting accurate reads through or near liquids and metals has been the most significant obstacle to its widespread cost-effective deployment.

RuBees opposite approach sidesteps many of those problems and makes it ideal for liquid and metal situations, Stevens said.

Abell said those weak RFID read rates—plus some standards group decisions and industry politics—have all played into making the environment receptive for RuBee.

"The key is that there needs to be some technology that is available that works in harsh environments. We still have 70 to 80 percent read rates, and that is both Gen1 and Gen2. That is unacceptable," Abell said.

He added that reads taken at different points along the supply chain deliver different accuracies and he cited some Wal-Mart data that has been released showing accuracy rates "upwards of 95 percent."

But those readings, he said, were taken at the last stage, with readers at the box crushers, when its easiest to read because the product is out of the box and its a simple tag on the cardboard.

"Were seeing a very mixed bag of read rates," he said.

HF (High-Frequency) RFID approaches "have been forced upon [RFID standards group] EPC Global" against the wills of both Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense because "they said that they only want one frequency," Abell said.

"They were both hoping that UHF Gen2 would work for everything. Nobody wants to replace whats already been done. The HF announcement is critical background to understand that there already was a crack in the armor."

The EPC Global decision meant that both Wal-Mart and the Defense Department "are faced with the prospect of redoing their infrastructure. This opens up the options to considering something very different" such as RuBee, Abell said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about the FDAs recommendations on RFID.

RFID has one critical advantage over RuBee in its ability to read far more products in a short period of time.

"RFID can do things that we cant do as well. RFID can take a bunch of things on a conveyor and it can read those items quickly. It has a very high bandwidth," Stevens said. "Were very low frequency, very slow. Most of the things that we do dont require speed. Realtime inventory with RFID is very difficult. Were never going to do Gillette razors. Were never going to do aspirin. We will do cell phones. We will do printers. Were trying to track something that has a little more value."

Abell agreed with the likely split between RFID and RuBee products.

"Its going to work well for discrete manufactured products, such as iPods and cell phones, lawn and garden equipment," he said.

"The negative is that it can only read about 10 reads per second. RFID UHF can handle 150 to 200 reads per second. RFID HF handles maybe as many as 100 reads per second."

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