Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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RFID tracking works even from beyond the grave

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in the Financial Times, 2006

Wendy Pratt runs the Tarn Moor woodland burial ground just outside Skipton, north Yorkshire , and is a passionate advocate for a more natural approach to the treatment of death. But beneath the grass and soil of her attractive four-acre meadowland site on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales lies an unlikely manifestation of the information age. Underground, beside each of the unmarked graves, is an RFID (radio frequency identification) microchip, held securely in a strong plastic stake.

For Wendy Pratt, the advantage of using RFID in this way is self-evident: the reassuring beep when a scanner is passed over the chip provides a way of confirming the information held in the formal burial ledger in which each interment is recorded. “It works well. It gives family members a sense of satisfaction and comfort,” she says.

RFID has received most attention for its potential in supply chain management. RFID tags (tiny microchips equipped with antennae) are already used widely in shipping and distribution and are seen as eventually replacing barcodes in retailing: Marks & Spencer, for example, is two years into a trial programme which has seen RFID tags inserted on seventeen million clothing items.

But too much focus on distribution and retailing could, it seems, be misleading. “The idea that you'll have RFID in boxes of cornflakes isn't cost-effective at the moment,” says Kevin Kelly, head of marketing at the Bracknell-based RFID Centre, a training and information initiative launched with government and commercial support. “Where the market in RFID is burgeoning is in asset tracking applications,” he adds.

Wendy Pratt sources her RFID chips from a small Sussex company ASSETtrac, set up seven years ago by Stephen Laing after a mid-life career move away from reinsurance at Lloyd's. He recounts how he tried rather unsuccessfully to interest the art and antiques world in the benefits of RFID tagging before discovering almost by chance the requirements of private burial grounds and local authority cemetery managers. “In twenty years' time, burial sites will look completely different, and their management will be different too. Yet managers may be asked by coroners to exhume bodies. An office wall map simply isn't good enough,” he says.

His company, which now includes the Commonwealth War Graves Commission among its clients, supplies RFID scanners and software as well as the tags themselves, which cost about £10 each. Not all the tags end up underground: Doncaster council has RFID tags on memorial rose bushes whilst ASSETtrac has also supplied RFID-enabled nails to English Nature for use in a project monitoring lichen growth.

Stephen Laing says the idea for his business came from another niche area where RFID has already achieved widespread acceptance. Some 30,000-40,000 cats and dogs each month are implanted with RFID identification chips, and according to Sarah Fry, sales director of Pet-ID UK Ltd, the technology demonstrates its usefulness by reuniting approaching a thousand errant pets with their owners each week. Sarah Fry takes labrador Zulu and retriever Harvey, both walking examples of RFID tagging, with her when she demonstrates her company's products to new clients. The firm, established in 1999, has a £1.3m turnover.

For Ian Smith, head of the DTI-supported UK RFID Centre Initiative, examples like these simply skim the surface of RFID's potential. He points to a recent study which predicts a ten-fold increase in the overall RFID market in the (pre-enlargement) EU-15 member states in the six years from 2004 to 2010. “That would represent an annual growth rate of 47%,” he says. His organisation has linked with other European RFID agencies to attempt to ensure that adequate European funding for the technology is included in the EU's forthcoming Seventh Framework Programme for R&D.

The European Union itself appears to be receptive. Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for the Information Society, recently described RFID as a ‘dazzling new technology', though she also pointed out that concerns about privacy need to be addressed. Her directorate launched a public consultation on the technology in March [2006] and is currently [mid 2006] holding a series of public workshops in Brussels, open to interested parties.

Viviane Reding's initiative may be good timing. The RFID industry looks set to pick up further publicity next month [June 2006] when the football World Cup kicks off in Germany . Every ticket for every match has been printed with its own unique RFID tag. Fans clutching their prized tickets will find that their details will be checked by security staff against the RFID-held data before they will be allowed into the stadiums.

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