The Booming Business of Active RFID and RTLS

IDTechEx expert sees companies already moving actively to incorporate active radio frequency identification technologies into their operations

Cambridge, MA — August 4, 2008 — The radio frequency identification (RFID) business will quintuple in value in the next ten years but the active RFID business is growing about ten times, driven by such business as the $475 million military order currently being serviced by Savi Technology and innovations such as the first 100,000 active RFID labels from Power ID with greatly enhanced range over passive alternatives.

Within active RFID, the market for real-time locating systems (RTLS) is projected to grow even faster — from $145 million today to $2.7 billion in 2018. Several analysts have come up with broadly similar figures to these projected by IDTechEx, and they could, of course, all be wrong. However, the trend in number of suppliers of active RFID and trials, the trend in the size of the largest orders and other leading indicators show that the business is already on the move in a big way.

Reflecting the fact that such a huge new market will serve many very different user needs, the choice of technologies is also becoming richer and more varied by the day. We now have RTLS that is "plug and play" and even RTLS that is battery operated, no plugging in being needed — just "play."

Indeed some new systems auto-calibrate — no need to map where everything is and no need to worry if readers are moved. Some RTLS locate to a few centimeters accuracy over fairly short range, while other RTLS work at 300 meters away.

There are now four main frequency bands to choose from in the array of RTLS offerings and for good reason, because the needs are so disparate. Indeed, no one knows how to land the biggest prize of all, which will be major supply chains that need to know the location of everything all the time.

Lay of the Market

So far, the market splits into market leader WhereNet's 2.45 GHz ISO standard time difference of arrivals (TDOA) system and the various ultra-wideband offerings using TDOA and alternatives, all serving the top of the market where superlative availability and accuracy are paramount.

Usually at lower cost we see systems working off existing WiFi infrastructure and other technologies that serve markets where cost of ownership and easy installation are more important and performance compromises are acceptable. In 2008, about $40 million will go to WhereNet, $40-45 million to UWB RTLS options, $40-45 million to WiFi RTLS and about $20 million to other RTLS technologies.

In years to come, that other category will at least hold its own, however, because it is here that some systems are self-calibrating, some have battery operated readers, some locate by room as requested by certain hospitals, and there are other benefits available that are sought by significant segments of the rapidly emerging market.

Reflecting all this, IDTechEx expanded the name of the world's only major annual conference on active RFID to "Active RFID and RTLS Summit" last year, but now there is another trend coming into view. Active RFID with sensing is set to involve huge numbers of tags that communicate with each other in "self-healing mesh networks," the jargon for this being ubiquitous sensor networks (USN).

Sometimes these will merge with RTLS capability, so there are huge implications here for those such as TRAAK Systems that can deal with threatened data overload and others that can progress beyond ZigBee, particularly in reducing power consumption to make these systems practicable.

Who can increase range and supply affordable labels that do the job? Certainly systems with billions of tags for both RTLS and USN are in prospect. This is exercising the minds of many in the world's leading software, electronics and systems companies and the marketing planners are already scoping the huge orders in prospect.

About the Author: Dr. Peter Harrop is chairman of IDTechEx. He previously was chief executive of Mars Electronics, the $260 million electronics company, and chairman of Pinacl plc, the $100 million fiber optic company.