What is RFID? - Definition & Applications

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

Did you know that you can find RFID chips everywhere from your hotel key card to the clothes tag at the department store? RFID has many uses from tracking inventory to tracking people. Learn how in this lesson.

RFID Definition

Just what is RFID? RFID stands for radio frequency identification. And just as its name suggests, it uses radio signals to send out information.

Why should you care about RFID? The name itself makes it sound like a fancy concept that you'd find in high-tech applications. However, this is far from the truth; you might be carrying a tiny RFID tag in your pocket or purse. If your smartphone is an NFC (near-field communication) device, then you have an RFID tag with you. NFC is a type of RFID tag that operates at high frequency. RFID tags in general operate at all radio frequencies.

There are two types of RFID tags; passive ones and active ones. Passive tags do not need to be powered and are read with a reader. Because the reader powers the tag, these have a read range of 25 meters, or 82 feet. Active tags have their own power source and are able to broadcast their own signals. These can broadcast up to 100 meters, or 328 feet.

RFID tags are tiny, and unless someone told you they were there, you probably wouldn't notice them. Just take a look at your smartphone. If you didn't know it, you wouldn't be able to tell if it has RFID.

RFID Applications

You can do a lot with your RFID tags. If your phone uses RFID technology in the form of NFC, then you can pay using just your smartphone and nothing else. All you need do is to place your phone near a sensor, and your payment will be processed automatically. No need to get a credit card out to swipe it. All the data is stored in the RFID or NFC chip.

Have you ever heard the siren go off at a department store when someone forgets to pay for something? This is because someone has taken a product with an RFID tag and passes by the RFID reader by the door. This causes a siren to go off alerting the staff that someone is walking away with a product without paying. Some of these RFID tags are big to actively deter people from stealing, while others are small and discreet so you wouldn't know it is there. These are examples of passive RFID tags.

In addition to the above, here are some other RFID applications:

Credit cards that you don't need to swipe
Inventory tracking
Attendance tracking
Controlling access to secure buildings
Tracking library books
DVD rental kiosks

Now, let's look at a couple examples in detail.

Security and Tracking

Some businesses and hotels use RFID tags to keep their buildings secure and prevent unauthorized access. Only people with an appropriate RFID card can access the building or a room. Instead of having physical keys, people can simply place their ID card next to a reader and it will automatically open the doors. Some hotels, high-security businesses, and hospitals have these.

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