At a time when there is a lot of talk about Near-Field Communication (NFC) and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), Etienne Perret, the fifth innovator to come under the microscope in our series, has come up with a concept that is a cross between a barcode and a radio identification tag – but without using chips!
An innovator? Yes, and a real devotee of science as well. With a degree in engineering and a doctoral thesis in his back pocket, this young lecturer at the Systems Design and Integration Laboratory (LCIS) of the University of Grenoble in France has always set his sights on finding practical, applicable solutions in the domain of electromagnetic waves. Fascinated by research, Etienne Perret came quite naturally into this field, given its closeness to the physical world, and he is continually trying to improve the existing solutions on the grounds that: “the research that has been carried out over the last ten years never went far enough.” Now that university academics are being encouraged to direct their research towards practical innovations, his tag-creation project is about to emerge from the shadows.
The disruptive concept: Chipless, recyclable, robust tags that make identification easier and are, very importantly, also cheap to make. This technology lies halfway between barcodes and radio identification. The new tags “should of course draw on the advantages of both existing technologies but first and foremost they must get around their limitations.” On the one hand traditional barcodes cannot be read at distance or through opaque objects, while on the other hand the RFID technology has proved to be rather costly. The novelty of Perret’s tagging system resides in the ‘pattern’ of the tag and the fact that it is made with conductive ink, giving a distinctive ‘electromagnetic signature’ that contains information on the labelled item. These tags are easier for readers to decode because they can send information via radio frequency through any solid obstacle. But the young academic stresses that the “main difference from other labels on the RFID market will be the cost. These tags will cost only a hundredth or even a thousandth of what the existing tags cost to make.”
Why focus on electromagnetic waves? A concatenation of circumstances led Perret to come up with his project for chipless tags using RF waves and Terahertz waves. “The idea was new and it enabled me to obtain financing to launch the work,” he explains. In parallel, he became aware of other research work being done into transposing the principle of barcodes into RF. “That was one of the factors which triggered the project.” From that point on, the first results he achieved were very promising, and he gradually managed to get the community which was working on the subject to take up his approach and his vision of a chipless system.
How does all this affect us? Perret’s tagging system is aimed specifically at the identification market – including such items as public transport or entry tickets, where the unit cost of the identification tags is of crucial importance. Basically it is the price of the tag together with its reading flexibility that will open the door to this market, which impacts every person’s life – most often without us being aware of it. “For the moment, the performance we’re achieving means that we have to look at niche markets. But we’re working on launching a system of this kind within three years,” he reveals.
So what does the future hold?Now that the project is about to move out of the laboratory into the real world, the next step involves looking for partners, a new experience for Etienne Perret, who admits that “the commercial side is not something I’m familiar with, but nevertheless I do think it’s fun.” As one of the top ten Under 35 Innovators in France for the year 2012 identified by the MIT Technology Review, he hopes that this recognition will help him to move the initiative forward faster. One thing is certain: Etienne Perret’s future will remain firmly in the field of science. “Personally, the idea of working on chipless identification has always seemed an interesting challenge to tackle and I’m convinced that it’s the more simple approaches which have the greatest chance of eventually making an impact on the mass market,” he explains, adding that he is also currently working on three other projects along the same lines as these RFID tags, while at the same time preparing to apply for tenure at the university.