Enhanced Tracking Technology May Help RFID


A Los Angeles start-up says it has developed a way to dramatically expand the range of a popular wireless tracking technology, opening up many new applications for low-cost identification tags.

Closely held Mojix Inc. says its enhancements to a technology known as RFID — for radio frequency identification — sharply reduce the cost of setting up wireless networks that can cover entire warehouses, stores, distribution centers and yards where heavy equipment is stored.

Such networks can be used to quickly locate goods and track their movements without having to be close to a scanning device. Networks with similar capabilities today typically require sophisticated RFID tags that cost anywhere from around $4 to more than $1,000 each, said John Fontanella, an analyst at AMR Research. Mojix says its hardware uses simpler tags that cost as little as 10 cents each.

“I think this could have significant impact,” said Michael Liard, an analyst at ABI research, of Mojix’s technology.

RFID, a more-sophisticated successor to bar codes, is used for applications such as preventing shoplifting of garments in stores and handling payments at bridge toll gates. Applying identification tags to pallets and boxes of goods has been touted as a better way to track inventories at retailers, manufacturers and other companies. But adoption has been slower than some companies expected, because of conversion costs and other issues.

The least-expensive form of the technology uses what the industry calls “passive” RFID tags, which have no power source or means to transmit data on their own. They are activated by radio signals from a device called a reader, which allows the tags to answer by sending information such as product identification numbers.

Readers for passive tags typically have a maximum transmission range of about 30 feet, said Ramin Sadr, Mojix’s chief executive. Partly as a result, companies often only deploy RFID networks in limited locations, such has around loading docks so they can track goods entering and leaving warehouses.

But in the late 1980s, Mr. Sadr and other Mojix engineers worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on technology used in long-range communications to spacecraft. They attempted to apply some of those concepts to RFID. The system they developed uses a grid of low-cost transmitters to provide radio energy to nearby RFID tags, which respond by sending signals to an unusually sensitive central receiver, Mr. Sadr said.

Each of the company’s receivers can manage signals from 512 transmitters — each as far as 600 feet away, Mr. Sadr said. The resulting coverage area can be up to 250,000 square feet, or about 100 times the coverage area of previous systems based on conventional tag readers, he added. Mojix isn’t disclosing exact pricing, but estimates that a network based on its technology will cost 20% to 25% less than other typical RFID systems as well as offer more-sophisticated capabilities.

Mojix isn’t likely to lack for competition. Ronny Haraldsvik, vice president of marketing and industry relations at Alien Technology Corp., a maker of RFID tags and readers in Morgan Hill, Calif., said Mojix appears to be targeting long-range applications now served by companies that use active RFID tags. “They are very entrenched,” he said.