Smarter RFID

A new way of using Radio Frequency Identification could improve safety in the petrochemical, food, pharmaceuticals and healthcare industries.

A new way of using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) funded by the EU’s Information Society Technologies (IST) group could improve safety in petrochemical, food, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.


RFID systems are generally passive, but the IST-funded Collaborative Business Items (CoBIs) project shifts a substantial part of business processes from resource-intensive back-end systems to systems embedded in the products themselves. With sensors, wireless communication and computing components attached, the goods or equipment become smart.  Chemical drums will warn operators when the storage limit in a warehouse is reached, if a leak occurs or if one is placed in the wrong location.


The petrochemical industry is likely to be an early adopter of the technology. The system will be tested at a BP plant in Hull, England later this year where the sensor nodes will be attached to barrels of chemicals and used to monitor compliance with safety regulations on the storage of hazardous materials. If all goes well, the full system could be adopted commercially in the industry within three to five years.


Unlike most RFID systems that mainly work passively to distinguish between tagged objects with their own unique identifier, CoBIs-enabled objects work actively by incorporating embedded sensing, computing and wireless short-range communication. They can monitor the state and environmental conditions of the goods they are attached to, communicate peer-to-peer and collaborate to observe conditions that no single sensor would be able to detect, and they can feed the information into back-end systems automatically within the project’s service-oriented architecture.


In the usage scenario for BP, this will not only provide automatic inventory tracking of chemical drums but will set off visual and audio alarms embedded in the sensors and in the storage facility if too many drums are stored together or incorrectly. The sensors could also be used to monitor the environmental conditions chemicals are subjected to during transportation or storage, allowing companies to detect a shipment that may have lost its properties and discard it rather than inadvertently, and potentially dangerously, using it in a later production process.


The same sensor network technology could be applied in other sectors, such as food, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, where monitoring the condition of a product is crucial. There is also the possibility to use CoBIs to create smart clothing that could be used to protect workers in hazardous environments.