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What is radio frequency identification (RFID)?

Radio frequency identification (RFID) refers to wireless technology used to send information between a pair of devices, generally a tag and a reader. It is used in medical devices, supply chain management and most commonly product bar codes. 

Read on further for an in-depth definition of radio frequency identification with the help of some radio frequency identification examples.

Radio frequency identification is part of a group of technologies called automatic identification and data capture used to identify objects, collect data from them and enter that data into computer systems with little to no human intervention.

How does radio frequency identification work? RFID systems are composed of two components: tags and readers. Tags emit radio waves to communicate their identity to readers that have one or more antennas to receive signals. 

RFID tags can be passive, meaning they are powered by reader devices and do not need a battery. Active RFID tags use batteries to operate. 

Tags can store information from serial numbers to several pages of data. Readers can be mobile or mounted on walls, they can also be built into the architecture of a room or building.

Radio frequency identification explained 

The origins of RFID systems go back to the Cold War era, where they were first used by the Soviet Union for espionage.

According to the BBC, in August 1945 after the end of World War II, US ambassador to the Soviet Union Averell Harriman was presented with a hand-carved ceremonial seal of the US as a gesture of friendship between the two nations. 

No wires or batteries were detected from the gift upon inspection. Harriman thought the gift to be harmless and hung the seal on the wall of his study. The seal had a battery-less listening device sending data to the Soviets in the form of radio waves. The bug wasn’t discovered by US officials until 1952.

Today the use of RFID technology is more ubiquitous, most commonly seen in product barcodes and credit cards. Favourable regulation has spurred increased usage of RFID technology in the 21st century after the US Department of Defence mandated suppliers mark each product with passive RFID tags.

Other examples of radio frequency identification use cases are in the healthcare industry. It is used in hospitals for out-of-bed and fall detection, ensuring patients receive correct medications and medical devices, and in data collection for electronic medical systems.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are no adverse effects associated with RFID technology that FDA is aware of. However, the administration stated there is concern about the potential of electromagnetic interference to medical devices from radio frequency transmitters.

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