Guest Column: RFID in Surveying, Underground Utility Location
Sometimes it’s not the changes in a technology that make the biggest difference, but advances in the surrounding world that allow that technology to reach its greater potential. Such is the case today with radio-frequency identification (RFID) and underground locating. While RFID has been fundamentally the same for 30 plus years, recent advancements such as mobile technology and cloud computing have opened up entirely new possibilities for RFID and underground locating.
RFID was introduced in the 1940s and the technology has been used commercially since the 1970s. Today, RFID chips are used in applications as diverse as toll collection, airport baggage tracking, passport identification, retail store inventory, pet and people tracking, and of course, underground locating. RFID is a $10 billion industry and growing rapidly.
But it’s the bigger technology advances happening in the world outside of the RFID industry that make the use of RFID more exciting than ever before. Here are four of the drivers:
Standards and reliability – RFID was always available as a specialized technology, but broader commercial acceptance took off after 2010. That was the timeframe that EPCglobal, a joint venture between the organizations responsible for driving global adoption of bar codes in the '70s, established a stable international standard around ultra-high frequency (UHF) passive RFID. Those standards increased consumer confidence, helped drive performance reliability rates to 99.9 percent, and decreased costs of equipment and tags. RFID — especially UHF passive RFID — became a broad-use, viable commercial alternative rather than a custom offering for specialty applications.
At one time, the only option for RFID underground locating was to use low frequency RF equipment and tags that utilize longer RF wavelengths to optimize performance through soil. This solution works, but the equipment is larger and read rates are slower than UHF. The rapid growth of UHF RFID has driven improved performance, greater affordability, and enabled easier field use for infrastructure locating and tracking.
Proliferation of RFID for related applications – In the recent past, RFID was only used for custom locating applications. The greatest RFID market growth is occurring with passive UHF RFID chips thanks to relative stability, reliability, low cost and zero power requirements. One of the most rapidly growing sub-areas of this RFID technology is asset and inventory tracking of infrastructure equipment. Infrastructure managers now have the opportunity to use UHF RFID for locating, tracing and tracking assets with RFID tags affixed to pipes, tools, signs, fire hydrants and underground utilities.
The same UHF RFID equipment can be used to read/write underground tags on these assets as well. While there are still many operational challenges, full life-cycle asset management from manufacture to inventory yard to installation to maintenance is now a possibility with UHF RFID; it’s not just something to wish for.
Mobile technology/Bring Your Own Device – Software developers have created apps that manage RFID interrogators and collect RFID data driven by standard iOS, Android and Windows mobile devices. Past RFID management required custom designed controlling boxes to operate. The ability to use a standard tablet to control RFID equipment in the field dramatically reduces field training time, supports periodic upgrades and produces a cheaper operating environment.
Cloud technology – Perhaps the most important change has been the emergence of cloud technology. In prior iterations of RFID locating, the field operator would have to read the tag on-site and download the data after returning to the office. Supplemental data to assist in locating was available with an “as-built’” map or by carrying paper copies of historical records. Maintenance and inspection records would have to be completed separately from the locating effort. This method resulted in transcription errors and significant delays in getting RFID-collected field data to the office.
The cloud changes everything. A field locator can be connected to the cloud and use a tablet to view a geomapped location of the assets to be found. The RFID tag can be read to verify the correct asset has been located and a wide array of information associated with that point, including past inspection records, photos and training videos. Maintenance and inspection records can be completed online with the RFID read providing a date stamp and audit record that meets compliance requirements.
RFID has always been a viable option for locating and verifying underground assets. But recent changes in related practices and technologies have fundamentally reshaped the possibilities for RFID use in infrastructure management. Those possibilities — integrated life cycle asset management, cheaper and faster field locating, and improved accuracy and compliance reliability — are now available thanks to the intersection of RFID technology with other worldchanging advancements, including the mobile “bring your own device” trend.