Newswise — Imagine a tag that provides detailed information about an object, but you can activate it at a much greater distance than that needed to scan a bar code, and it can transmit encrypted information without a battery. This is precisely what radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags produced by Dirac Solutions Inc. (DSI) can accomplish, playing a crucial role in inventory management of national security items. The RFID technology was developed decades ago, but DSI products are different from other RFID devices. DSI technology overcomes serious technical problems that occur when many RFIDs are close together, around metals and liquids, and in the presence of interfering signals, all of which degrade the radiofrequency communications.
DSI’s RFID tag technology finds the most immediate application in situations in which a large number of items with their respective sensitive information needs to be entered in a secure way into an electronic inventory in a short time. A typical situation is the deployment of supplies in response to an emergency, for example, a nuclear or terrorism incident. The items might be in a cluttered environment, they might be packed in metal containers, and they might be subjected to radiation and/or need to be stored for very long times. DSI’s RFID tag system allows such a challenging inventory to be completed in a few minutes by a single person just by pointing the reader at supplies already loaded in a truck.
RFID systems are made of two components: (1) Reader, which emits the radiofrequency signal and reads the signal sent back from the tag, and (2) Tag, which reflects back a portion of the signal sent out by the reader.
By reflecting back part of the signal, the tag reports on a data set consisting of unique identifiers, sensor and location information. The data can be displayed on a smart phone. The tag and reader communication is highly secure with encryption and dynamic authentication approved by the National Security Agency. The tag contains a microcontroller chip, which encrypts the signal and requires power to perform this computation-intensive process. The novelty of DSI’s technology is that the tag does not have a battery (passive device).The computation power is provided by the same radiofrequency signal the tag is exposed to by the remote reader. For this to actually work, both the antennas and the signal processing software in the tag and the reader needed to be fundamentally redesigned.
“Encryption requires a lot of computation and our customized software was developed to take care of the security aspect in the most efficient way,” says Dr. Faranak Nekoogar, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of DSI. The antenna was completely re-engineered to be much more efficient and directional, to pick up the faintest signal from various directions. A sophisticated signal-processing algorithm was then developed to distinguish the smallest signal from the surrounding noise and eliminate interference, absorption, and obscuration effects. “It’s a bit like enabling a cell phone to work reliably inside an elevator,” explains Nekoogar.
These innovations required many years of wireless research and product development, which started with the PhD work of Nekoogar at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) 13 years ago. Nekoogar attained U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) research funds to develop her technology. Subsequently, the LLNL Tech Transfer Office (TTO) selected the technology as a mature technology with commercial potential.
“The insight of LLNL and the great entrepreneurial sense of Dr. Richard Twogood, who developed a Cooperative Research and Development project with LLNL TTO office after retirement, were key success factors,” explains Nekoogar. “Our team was a perfect match and became very strong because we both had the same mission and agenda. We addressed the proprietary concerns of all parties in a cooperative spirit and this ultimately led to our SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] award.”
In 2016, four of DOE’s Nuclear First Responder facilities in New Mexico, Texas, Idaho, and California were equipped with the DSI’s inventory automation system, reducing their effort of checking their gear (~900 pounds of needed equipment) at response time from 5 hours to 30 minutes -- a 90% operational efficiency in responding to emergencies. With DSI’s technology, the tagged equipment can also be reported to a cloud-based database for more global inventory management between the nuclear emergency response facilities.
The initial development and commercialization of the passive tag-seal sensors was made possible by research and development carried out under the DOE SBIR award. The award funding was provided by the Global Nuclear Safeguards Program within the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration. Following SBIR Phase II, which started in 2012, DSI reached a total of $1.3 million in federal sales for their RFID devices for nuclear emergency response in a variation of its original technology. In 2016, DSI started their Phase III, having secured $1.9 million from DOE. Nekoogar was very pleased with the entrepreneurial encouragement from LLNL. “I think it is great that LLNL wants to keep the inventor involved in the company’s growth. I was able to take an entrepreneurial leave and become Dirac Solution’s CTO.”
“In Phase III,” Nekoogar explains, “we are focusing all our efforts in enabling efficient mass manufacturing in collaboration with Silicon Valley companies, in order to significantly bring down costs.” Closing this gap will allow DSI to serve many other markets. These markets include commercial supply chain management, asset and people tracking, contactless payment, as well as the Internet of things, which interconnects any device or everyday object through the Internet enabling them to exchange data without human interaction.