RFID, Sensors and the Internet of Things

The use of a wide variety of terms to describe RFID technologies—and the lack of precision among those terms—confuses companies seeking solutions to their business problems.
By Mark Roberti

There are active RFID tags with on-board sensors that can detect humidity, moisture, motion, pressure and temperature. There are also battery-assisted and a few passive tags with sensors. RFID is certainly part of a broader ecosystem of data-capture technologies, and the many forms of RFID will exist alongside and in conjunction with sensors that monitor environmental and other conditions.

The debate about whether RFID tags are sensors is not simply academic. The bandying about of these terms results in confusion among businesspeople seeking to purchase solutions to solve their companies' problems. They don't understand the various types of RFID or the difference between RFID and other technologies for monitoring machines.

To help keep our readers informed and clear about what different technologies do, RFID Journal has adopted the following approach to these terms:

Basic RFID transponders, whether active or passive, are not sensors—they are RFID tags or transponders. Their purpose is to identify an object and determine its location. Tags are often used to count objects in known locations.

Wireless sensors, whether they communicate via mesh networks or conventional RFID readers, are RFID sensors—provided they include an ID that allows you to differentiate one sensor from another. Some argue that mesh-networking nodes, sometimes called motes, are not RFID because they have a central processing unit and run an operating system. That's like saying a laptop isn't a computer because it isn't a mainframe.

Most of our articles discuss a specific type of technology used to identify and track something. The Internet of Things is a term we use to refer to the broad set of wired and wireless systems that enable objects and machines to connect to the Internet and share information. RFID Journal covers smart appliances that rely on RFID to collect and transmit data (see NFC-Enabled Refrigerator Shares Data With Mobile Phones), but does not focus on sensors built into machines to monitor their condition and report on it via a wired connection to the Internet.

We believe that clarity in the use of these terms, even if some might consider our definitions arbitrary, will help companies seeking to use these technologies determine precisely what they need.

Illustration: iStockphoto

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