Dr Jerry Landt is one of the godfathers of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. In the 1970s he was part of the Los Alamos team that developed RFID for the US Government, in the 1980s he co-founded groundbreaking RFID company Amtech and in the 1990s the Association of American Railroads (AAR) adopted his RFID system as industry standard.

Now chief scientist at TransCore, which merged with Amtech in 2000, his technology is used on 43 railroads in 19 countries around the world. Who better to give the lowdown on the technology that has taken the rail industry by storm?

“Technology began to fall into place in the late 1970s to early 1980s to permit widespread use of RFID.”

Paul French: For the uninitiated, what is RFID?

Jerry Landt: Everyone uses RFID. The systems that are in common use are garage door openers, keys for electronic access to vehicles, anti-theft devices on automotive ignitions, anti-shoplifting devices in retail stores, electronic badges to gain access to buildings and paying electronically for tolls without stopping the vehicle.

All these systems pass information from one device to another using radio waves. The device that identifies the person or object is often called a tag. The tag is a relatively simple device that is capable of sending its data to another device, often called a reader. The reader is a more complicated device that receives the data from the tag and responds appropriately according to the intent of the system. Some tags can also receive data from the reader to be carried by the tag and read later.

PF: How does RFID work?

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JL: There are many different types of RFID systems, but the basic parts of a tag are: memory, operating power, function control, antenna and some type of radio component.

“The Amtech RFID system was designed so that it could be used worldwide and across all modes of transportation.”

The basic parts of a reader are a radio transmitter, a radio receiver, an antenna or antennas, signal processing circuitry, control circuitry and a data interface to an external device or system. Functionality can be added to a reader by inclusion of a computer with memory and control functions.

The antennas of the tag and reader are designed to control the physical area where data exchange is to take place. When the tag enters this zone, it sends its data to the reader. The tag can obtain power from a battery, directly from the vehicle, or through signals sent by the reader.

The reader receives the radio signal from the tag and extracts the data. The reader than performs its programmed operations such as storing the data, sending it to an external device, opening a gate, or other such functions. The precise electronic details differ from one type of RFID system to another.

PF: How did RFID use in rail come about?

JL: The idea of RFID had been around for some time, fundamentally beginning with a paper by Harry Stockman in 1948. Technology began to fall into place in the late 1970s to early 1980s to permit widespread commercial use of RFID. The items of technology included the invention of the personal computer, complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) integrated circuits, electrically erasable programmable read-only memory (EEPROM) memory and efficient, inexpensive microwave diodes.

Competitive business pressures drove many industries to look at technology to improve their operations. The first widespread commercial use of long-range RFID was for electronic toll collection. Its use in rail followed shortly after and was remarkable since the entire industry in North America had to agree on the system due to interchange of equipment.

PF: How was RFID developed for rail?

JL: The history of TransCore RFID started in 1972 at the US Government’s Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Five of the original technical staff, including me, founded Amtech and spun the RFID technology out of the Los Alamos lab in 1984.

“In the 1960s, a barcode system was installed but failed to satisfy needs.”

The Amtech RFID technology was designed specifically for demanding transportation applications including rail, intermodal and motor vehicles.

The Amtech RFID system was designed so that it could be used worldwide and across all modes of transportation.

Use for rail, intermodal and motor vehicles began concurrently with trials in 1985–6. National and international standards were in place by the early 1990s, and widespread use of RFID in these industries was well on its way.

PF: Who was the first to use RFID on railways and when was that?

JL: The first regular use of RFID in rail that I was involved in was in 1985 on a unit train carrying coal from the Kerr McGee coal mine in southern Illinois to a power plant in St Louis.

PF: What challenges did you face when developing RFID for rail?

JL: The system design requirements include ruggedness, accuracy, reliability and economy. The mechanical design was equally as challenging as the electronic design. The AAR conducted a technology search and then performed an extensive testing programme.

TransCore worked with the railroads to assure that solutions were available for all identified applications, including coal cars which go through thaw sheds, end-of-train devices, monitoring fuel level on locomotives, compatibility with the RFID equipment mounted in intermodal containers that are carried by rail, double stack, speed and accuracy, and others.

“The RFID systems for rail in North America use frequencies near 915MHz.”

Providing a complete set of hardware was a challenge. The AAR chose to do this essential work themselves. The success of the rail applications depended heavily on the efforts of the railroads to tag all the equipment, deploy a reader network and design and install the infrastructure and data processing systems to make the data useful.

Another big challenge was to earn the acceptance of the AAR. The rollout of RFID for the rail industry in North America was an enormous task. We worked hand-in-hand with the AAR and its members to solve problems that cropped up. We were fortunate to be able to earn their trust and develop a good working relationship.

PF: What problems did the AAR want you to solve for them?

JL: In short, the AAR and its members were looking for ways to improve customer service and reduce costs. The need to identify and track railcars was long standing. In the 1960s, a barcode system was installed but failed to satisfy needs. An all-weather robust radio system has proven to be an effective solution.

PF: What types of RFID system are used in rail?

JL: There are several types of RFID systems and they can be classified by the radio frequencies used. Low frequencies, from 100kHz to tens of MHz, have ranges of less than a metre and use inductive techniques. Communication distance of several tens of metres is the realm of systems operating at frequencies from about 400MHz to 6GHz. The RFID systems for rail in North America use frequencies near 915MHz.

“The equipment operates in all weather, is robust, has long range and does not require a line of sight.”

PF: How long does RFID take to implement?

JL: It depends on the details. Often, the system integration and software development to handle the data take more time and effort than the purchase and installation of the RFID system. It can take several years to tag all items if they are widespread. Simple installations can be done in little more than an afternoon with equipment that is in stock for things like access to parking garages.

PF: How much of an impact does RFID have on new adopters?

JL: Using RFID often requires changes in business processes. These changes require substantial resources including time and money and careful thought and planning so that normal operations are not adversely affected during the rollout. Often, institutional inertia inhibits adoption of new technology or processes.

Another challenge is how to get everything tagged. Until this has happened, the ‘new’ RFID system cannot handle all the tracking requirements and the result is the need to continue with the existing tracking system that adds to cost and complexity. This is clearly not attractive. When we rolled out the system in North America, the AAR and its members implemented a tagging project to solve this dilemma to tag all the equipment within a several-year time span.

PF: What benefits does RFID give rail operators?

JL: Benefits include improved customer service, arising from knowing where equipment is and providing tailored service, and reduced operating costs obtained through better utilisation of equipment, reduction of mistakes and automation. The return on investment is quick, although many users of RFID do not discuss these issues.

PF: What advantages does RFID have over its competitors?

JL: RFID has numerous advantages over other systems when carefully matched to the requirements of the application. Passive RFID tags contain no power source and therefore have a very long life if properly designed from a mechanical standpoint. The equipment operates in all weather, is robust, has long range and does not require a line of sight, which means dirt or paint can cover the tag.

Barcodes are good in retail applications for low-cost items. There is talk of the use of RFID in the retail and supply chain, but it is my opinion that RFID will not compete well against barcodes in the near term, if ever, in the application of tagging low-cost individual items.

“RFID integrates nicely with GPS to further enhance the tracking capability.”

However, barcodes were tried both in the rail and intermodal industries in the past and abandoned because of performance issues.

There are some systems that use infrared instead of radio. An infrared tag requires line of sight and a battery. Consequently, cost, reliability, life and weather concerns favour RFID over infrared systems for transportation applications.

Another automatic identification technique is the use of optical character recognition. This technology suffers from the requirement of line of sight, little blemishing of the characters, good weather and a complex computer to recognise the characters. Optical character recognition is often used in enforcement systems for RFID for vehicles that do not have tags and also in some other systems such as catching and recording vehicles that run red lights.

PF: Does RFID have any drawbacks?

JL: I can’t think of any. Tags do not have batteries or any other material harmful to the environment. The radio power from a reader is comparable to a handheld cell phone. The railroads are acquainted with the use of radios so RFID adds little burden. Society is becoming more concerned with privacy issues, but there are no privacy issues with tracking rail cars. RFID integrates nicely with GPS to further enhance the tracking capability.

Failure and disappointment often occur when a technology is applied to an application for which it is ill-suited. Although many RFID systems appear the same, and the implementation looks straightforward, this is not the case. As a result, some potential users of RFID technology have had bad experiences and are left with a bad taste. There are always things that crop up, even for well-designed equipment. Technology always evolves. Unexpected things happen that sometimes require engineering and updates.

PF: What does the future hold for RFID in rail?

JL: The future looks good. A new-generation RFID system is just now entering use in the rail industry. It is backward compatible with the existing installed RFID equipment but adds additional features and robustness. It will enable further efficiencies and applications within the rail industry.