A business development division within the University of Maryland, College Park said yesterday that it's launching a new program to help state companies assess whether radio frequency identification (RFID) - a system used to track products and locate individuals - is right for them.
Such RFID chips, which can emit detectable signals, are already being used to pay tolls through E-ZPass and track inventory and supplies at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and the Defense Department.
A unit of automaker BMW uses RFID to connect drivers with interactive billboards on the highway, broadcasting personalized messages. And last year, the U.S. government began rolling out passports with RFID information tags that contained the holder's personal data.
"These tags are actually talking to a computer without manual intervention," cutting down on labor costs, said Paul Vinikoor, a certified RFID technologist, electrical engineer and manager of the university's Maryland Technology Extension Service, which provides business assistance to state companies.
Through MTES, Vinikoor is launching the state business-assessment program. It will be free for the first six to 10 applicants "to get the ball rolling," he said, and likely become a paid service later on.
"This is to make companies in the state more productive. We want companies to make more money," Vinikoor said. "The bottom line is if they make more money, they're going to pay more taxes ... and RFID can help them improve productivity."
For many, RFID chips are the high-tech and pricier versions of a bar code, with tags costing roughly about 20 cents.
Unlike barcodes, however, they don't require a scanner to read the information stored on them. Instead, they can be traced from far away and instantaneously.
Such tags can be attached to labels for tracking products, to bracelets for tracking children, and to books - as they were in 2004 at the White Marsh branch of the Baltimore County Library - for speedier checkout.
In Middle River, Lockheed Martin Corp. is using RFID to track missile launcher parts and finished products. Last year, the Bethesda company acquired California's Savi Technology Inc., which makes RFID tags, Lockheed spokesman Jeff Adams said.
And Prince George's County Circuit Court is in the process of installing an RFID system, spending between $200,000 and $250,000 - 32 cents per tag - to track thousands of court files as they move from office to office, according to the RFID Journal.
At those prices, its unlikely RFID would be used to track inexpensive products, such as cans of soda or packs of gum in the grocery store, said Jay A. Steinmetz, chief executive of Baltimore's Barcoding Inc., which makes an RFID shelf that can track inventory - books, bottles of wine and other items - as they are placed or removed.
"The [return on investment] on this stuff is directly proportional to the requirement to know where an item is and when," Steinmetz said. The lesser the item's importance, the less likely it needs RFID tracking.
Last year, about 200 million items worldwide had RFID tags attached to them, according to IDTechEx Inc., a United Kingdom technology consultant and analyst. The number is expected to balloon to 550 billion by 2016 as the price of RFID systems falls.
Steinmetz said RFID can be used to track the movement of machinery, drugs as they travel through a hospital and body organs ready for transplant - areas where it's particularly important that the right item is matched with the correct destination. It's even being used to track people as they walk through doorframes or roam a campus.
"It's pretty cool," Steinmetz said. "Want to know where somebody is? Here, wear this around your neck or put this on your belt."
Such uses have made some groups uncomfortable, however.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology, or CDT, have raised privacy concerns over how RFID is used.
"RFID technology raises privacy concerns when its use enables parties to obtain personally identifiable information, including location information, about particular individuals that those parties otherwise would be unable or unauthorized to obtain," said an RFID best-practices document created last year by CDT.
Some worry the tags would be used to track shopping habits or steal personal information. Steinmetz acknowledges that it's an issue, but adds that RFID is the "way the world is headed."
"Do I agree with it? Not always, definitely not always," he said. "As a CEO of a company that does this for a living, I have major concerns. And that should scare everybody."