Etienne Perret
2013, France
Cheap and high sensitives Radiofrequency labels to identify objects
Computer Science

Labels radio frequency identification cheap and with high sensitivity

Can barcodes become obsolete one day, and something that we may look at with nostalgia like vinyl records? Etienne Perret, a young French researcher and professor at LCIS at the University of Grenoble, believes so.

Printed or added to virtually any product we buy on the market, and a lot more of any kind of objects including ID cards and airplane tickets, barcodes have been our daily companion in all transactions and identification processes since the early 70's, thanks to their flexibility and low cost. Still, they have limited range, are very sensitive to dust and cannot be inside objects, and can only send information about their ID, nothing else. In this new world where every object may become a sensor and interact with the surrounding environment (this new connected environment often referred to as the “Internet of Things”), new technologies are pushing for a wide-scale commercial deployment.

It is in this context that Perret's research on a new system based on RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is important and ''may finally allow the replacement of barcodes'' as stated by Niko Bonastos, member of the MIT Technology Review Jury for Young Innovators. Until now, devices incorporating this technology required a microchip and operated mostly in UHF frequency, with a considerable impact on production costs. Etienne had developed a new RFID chipless system, the size of a barcode, where the “identity” of the object is stored as an electro-magnetic signature through the conductive paint it is made of. When an RFID reader scans it, the electro-magnetic reply will show the ID of the article, however Etienne managed to address the second key challenge encountered so far by RFID devices (the first one being removing the chip and making it an entirely passive device), namely the weakness of the emitted response signal: Perret's RFID label is based on a “resonating pattern” which allows sending a reply which is polarized perpendicularly with respect to the scanning signal, and this dramatically improves the possibility to correctly detect it, as it is less prone to interference from neighbouring objects. Result: a much cheaper and robust passive component that can be deployed in large scale once a suitable industrial partner is found. 

However, this is just an aspect of Perret's work: his second axe of research is focused on coupling these new generation RFID devices with other materials that can act as sensors (for instance nanotubes of silica, which can act as sensors of humidity). For that, he collaborates with three other research centers, specialized in nanotechnology and other branches of the sciences of materials. The RFID device will “incorporate” and add any such information to the response it sends to the reader, who may in turn upload it automatically on the web, or trigger specific actions or decisions. This is an additional step towards a future where mankind will have increasing control on all aspects of his environment, and perhaps, queueing at the supermarket counter to individually scan each article will be a thing of the past.