Jan 28 2020

The Difference Between NFC vs. RFID (and How RAIN RFID Is Emerging)

The technologies are not new, but today they are driving some of modern life’s greatest conveniences.

When customers think of paying for their lunch with their phone or smartwatch, it seems like a relatively novel concept. Being able to make a transaction without cash or a credit card changing hands has been one of the greatest conveniences of emerging technology.

But the technology that powers it isn’t really “emerging” — it’s something we’ve used for decades. Radio-frequency ID supports inventory tracking and mobile payments in an instant, and as the Internet of Things continues to grow, there’s more to track than ever before.

While RFID is everywhere, there’s still something of a mystery surrounding it and its related technology, near-field communication. RFID and NFC drive some of life’s conveniences now, but experts say we could be just scratching the surface of what they can do.

What Are RFID, NFC and RAIN RFID, and What Are Their Frequencies?

RFID uses electromagnetic fields to track tags that can be attached to objects, such as service parts or smartphones. If that seems like familiar technology, that’s because it is. RFID Journal reports that the origins of RFID reach all the way back to World War II, when the U.S., Germany, Britain and Japan all used a recently developed detection system called radar to track approaching planes. But while radar gave them miles of warning before aircraft would arrive at the base, they couldn't use it to distinguish enemy planes from their own

Germany began ordering their planes to roll as they approached the base, changing the radio frequency and allowing them to be identified as friendly aircraft. This was essentially the first form of passive RFID, which is a tag that doesn’t need to be connected to power to operate. It was the British who came up with the first active-tag RFID system (which they called “identify friend or foe,” or IFF) by equipping their planes with battery-powered transmitters that would send a signal identifying them as British.

Eighty years later, RFID still operates in a similar way. One of the key differences is being able to manipulate frequencies to achieve different goals. 

Two of the most popular forms of RFID are NFC and RAIN RFID. At 13.56 megahertz, NFC is a high-frequency RFID, while RAIN (whose acronym — a nod to its reach into the cloud — derives from “RAdio frequency IdentificatioN”) is an ultrahigh-frequency RFID operating between 860 and 960MHz

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Learn how RFID tags are enhancing the museum experience.

What Is RAIN RFID and How Is It Used?

Those looking to use RFID across longer distances can turn to RAIN, whose UHF band allows for connections farther away — up to about 15 meters, according to Steve Halliday, president of the industry group RAIN Alliance. The software that controls a RAIN system can vary, depending on the need, from small stand-alone programs that simply detect and store information from RFID tags, to more complex systems that gather and analyze information from large, cloud-based databases. This gives users the ability to connect the data from tagged items to the internet.

“RAIN technology is designed to be used at much larger distances to give us the ability to look at many different things at the same time,” Halliday says, adding that RAIN readers can detect 1,000 tags per second. That makes the technology very popular among retailers.

“The biggest use we have probably is in the retail apparel market — so many items of clothing are being tagged with RAIN,” says Halliday. “It allows the store to do instant inventory, either through a handheld to scan clothes as managers walk by, or with a fixed reader in the ceiling.” 

It’s also popular among manufacturers, as it gives them the ability to track inventory from the start of production in large warehouses. Tagged machinery can send out a signal when there’s a malfunction or an upgrade needs to be made, telling workers exactly where the problem is so that it can be fixed efficiently. 

Steve Halliday
We think that RAIN RFID, being a very inexpensive technology, is going to provide a link to those everyday things that will bring them into the Internet of Things.”

Steve Halliday President, RAIN Alliance

How Is NFC Used?

While RAIN can make tracking items easier for businesses, NFC is more human-centric. Because it requires close proximity to a reader, the technology lends itself better to functions that require better security, such as using a cellphone to pay for a latte or gain access to a building. Customers who use Apple Pay, for example, have used NFC.

Mike McCamon, executive director of nonprofit industry association NFC Forum, says that a big difference between NFC and RAIN is that NFC is intentional, and therefore more secure. “You have to tap to make it happen,” he says. Because the connection is not automatic, and because the user has to actually touch the reader in order to activate that connection, it provides an extra layer of protection for the user.

The most common use right now is to support mobile payments, but McCamon also says that many companies are using it to grant access to cars or buildings. “They build NFC into a piece of jewelry, for example, like a ring, and when you walk up to the door you just tap it to get in.”

Overseas, NFC has been used on a larger scale to help ease congestion on public transportation. McCamon says that both Europe and Asia have really embraced the technology to allow residents taking public transportation to merely touch their phone to a turnstile to get on to their train, helping to reduce time spent waiting in line.

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Why an RFID strategy is important for retailers.

What’s the Future of NFC and RAIN RFID?

While there are many common uses for both NFC and RAIN, there’s a lot of untapped potential. For example, Halliday says that the International Air Transport Association passed a resolution last year supporting the requirement for airlines to tag luggage with RAIN technology, allowing passengers to follow their bags and helping them find lost luggage quickly. Printed RAIN tags are attached to baggage, according to RAIN tag manufacturer Imping, which are then detected by wireless readers that are strategically placed along the bags’ journey. That data is fed back into the airline’s operating system in real time, allowing the airline, and potentially customers, to find a specific tag’s location.

RAIN could also play a major role in the Internet of Things, says Halliday, turning everyday objects into smart items. 

“Smart items understand where they are, what they’re doing and all the rest of it, but the jeans you're wearing, the shoes you’re wearing, the screwdriver you might be using — none of those things do today,” he says. “We think that RAIN RFID, being a very inexpensive technology, is going to provide a link to those everyday things that will bring them into the Internet of Things.”

NFC is still trying to find its place in IoT, says McCamon, but there are many conveniences on the horizon that could be powered by the technology.

“There’s a whole number of companies in our space that are looking at the mobility of getting a service,” he says. “NFC could be the thing that gets you through customs, gets you on the airplane, helps you rent a car and even walk into the hotel room — you could do all of that using NFC technology.”

McCamon also expects the use of NFC in transportation to expand into the U.S. as well. “The idea is to bring that same convenience you have of being able to pay at the grocery store, to being able to walk up to a turnstile in any city in the world and just tap your phone and walk in,” he says. “And I think those types of solutions are where people will really see the convenience and the value of the technology. 

“The difference is because there’s this intent of touch, and the fact that it’s connected to your identity, that it knows who you are, that you’d be able to do those kinds of things.”

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