Intelligent Things and Intelligent Environments


RFID Alive – Learnings from RFID Live Part Two


In the last article, we introduced the topic of intelligent things and intelligent environments.

Intelligent things, as the term pertains to RFID technology, means items — products or assets from equipment on an oil rig to household appliances — that are intelligent. They can tell you about themselves: for example, don’t make me too cold or too hot; I have been used 1,000 times and you must replace a part, and so on. In addition, with complementary technologies such as processors on board, they can conduct some basic functions. This capability becomes quite important in the world of remote operations that are often off the grid. That type of environment requires the use of RFID, GPS or wireless with complementary technologies such as sensors and new processors. Thus the use of the term intelligence, rather than smart. This enhancement over ‘smart’ things is the addition of processing power for more advanced capabilities to work in remote environments that may not be connected to the web. Devices in such locations need more than just ID technology.

Intelligent environments — we all have had some experiences with sensors. Think room lights that shut off when no one is there, or elevators that won’t take on too much weight. These are pre-programmed capabilities — smart, but not dynamic. We think of environments as much bigger spaces — the factory, the hospital, the power grid. Now we incorporate the above-mentioned RFID complimentary technologies and analytics. This adds enhanced interactivity and integration to multiple activities. The shift in focus moves from capturing one signal from one tag to encompassing the environment — capturing information and adding analysis of the operations in these environments.

We see examples of this as delivered by several firms: RFID Global Solutions, Intelligent Insights, TAKE Solutions. What are these firms doing differently? I think their so-called market or product position — asset tracking or Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS), though important — might be a misnomer. No doubt assets with tags can be tracked, but that just tells you where the asset is now. What these solution providers do is provide a much bigger picture, literally, of what is happening now and what to do about it.

For example, RFID Global’s healthcare solution takes advantage of not only RFID and wireless technologies, but also the latest touch technology to address huge challenges in hospitals — not just where the equipment is (Figure 1), but where the people are and what they are doing (process, procedure, and to whom). (See Figure 2.) These real-time analytics can take an instance of data and support decision making regarding what is the best thing to do next.

Oat, a division of Checkpoint Systems, has been involved with Airbus for several years on their far-reaching, corporate-wide RFID rollout. From the outset of the RFID era, Oat was an analytics company — unique at the MIT RFID center a decade ago, when everyone was focused on tags. The data from RFID need to be presented in a relevant format and turned into actionable information. Oat saw that at the outset and it is still their charter now.Said Su Doyle of Oat, “We make big data useful. Data has to be actionable to be useful — not just history — when you are dealing with manufacturers and their processes such a WIP tracking, maintenance and JIT purchasing.”

Intelligent Environments — What They Might Look Like

The past was all about ‘wiring up’ the enterprise. The future will be all about sensors and antennas.

Your item arrives — the environment senses it. Its intelligence tells the environment how it needs to be cared for. It is moving at this speed — slow it down. Or, I’m hot, I’m cold. Please unpack and refrigerate me now. I require care immediately. I am not the right part. I am blind — please guide me. Or, this is an object foreign to this environment and must be ejected.

Things can interact with the environment as well as with each other to create enhanced intelligence (we know this from grid technology discussions). But the interaction in real-time in local situations is the critical point.

So much of the data in these environments would not be part of traditional ERP systems. Many proposed uses are for data and instructions that would be used within operational realms in infrastructure management solutions, in entertainment, games, healthcare and new architectural design. It presents a huge software opportunity, and companies are rushing to fill this need.

We are beyond the imagination stage with many of these ideas, and as the technology becomes cheaper, but more importantly, easy to install and maintain (i.e. power), the possibilities will only increase.

So, What about the Internet of Things?

Yes, the internet of things is important.1 But what role does the Internet of Things play in creating the intelligent environment? There are several. First there’s commissioning the environment — downloading the unique configuration for this specific environment to provide remote management monitoring and control capabilities. Then there’s commissioning the tags and devices — to ID the ‘things’ in the Internet of Things. And updating those tags with changes as things move.

Security and oversight are also critical in this realm. Runaway technology is not just a fear; it does happen. We recall Tom Hanks in Angels and Demons, running out of oxygen in the climate controlled room. It makes a good story, but it’s not unrealistic to people who are accountable for security and safety in remote areas. Technology’s goal is to enhance our safety, security and quality of life. We look forward to this more intelligent future.

See also our RFID library.


1 The Internet of Things is a concept of providing interoperable and accessible data about each unique object. This concept was hotly debated decades ago and architectural models were endorsed. Though never fully implemented, the concept still has advocates.

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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