The initial backers of RuBee being considered as a protocol include industry heavyweights from both the retail side?including the U.S.'s Best Buy, U.K.-based Tesco and Germany's Metro Group?plus technology vendors including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Sony, Panasonic, Motorola and NCR, said Pete Abell, a veteran RFID analyst now working for IDC's Manufacturing Insights. Paris-based CarreFour is also supporting the effort, Abell said.
"The horsepower behind this one is pretty significant," Abell said. RuBee "definitely has a major place. The RFID world moving forward is not going to be a one-size fits all."
IEEE officials paint RuBee as not a wholesale replacement for RFID, but merely an alternative technology that may be better suited for specific applications. Indeed, RuBee is close to a scientific opposite of today's typical RFID technology.
John Stevens is chair of the 1902.1 working group and is also chairman of Visible Assets Inc. Visible Assets began the RuBee effort and made the proposal to IEEE after gaining the support of several key retailers and technology vendors, Stevens said.
A traditional 900-MHz RFID approach "is 99.99 percent radio signal and .01 magnetic/inductive. What (RuBee) is doing is 99.99 percent magnetic. There is no radio signal in these tags at all," Stevens said. "All RFID tags are backscattered transponders. RuBee is an active transceiver."
An IEEE statement described RuBee as being "a bidirectional, on-demand, peer-to-peer, radiating, transceiver protocol operating at wavelengths below 450 Khz. This protocol works in harsh environments with networks of many thousands of tags and has an area range of 10 to 50 feet."
The "harsh environment" reference is key to RuBee's appeal, as RFID's struggles with getting accurate reads through or near liquids and metals has been the most significant obstacle to its widespread cost-effective deployment. RuBee's opposite approach sidesteps many of those problems and makes it ideal for liquid and metal situations, Stevens said.
Abell said those weak RFID read rates?plus some standards group decisions and industry politics?have all played into making the environment receptive for RuBee.
"The key is that there needs to be some technology that is available that works in harsh environments. We still have 70-80 percent read rates and that is both Gen1 and Gen2. That is unacceptable," Abell said.
He added that reads taken at different points along the supply chain deliver different accuracies and he cited some Wal-Mart data that has been released showing accuracy rates "upwards of 95 percent." But those readings, he said, were taken at the last stage, with readers at the box crushers, when it's easiest to read because the product is out of the box and it's a simple tag on the cardboard. "We're seeing a very mixed bag of read rates," he said.
High-Frequency (HF) RFID approaches "have been forced upon (RFID standards group) EPC Global" against the wills of both Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense because "they said that they only want one frequency," Abell said. "They were both hoping that UHF Gen2 would work for everything. Nobody wants to replace what's already been done. The HF announcement is critical background to understand that there already was a crack in the armor."
The EPC Global decision meant that both Wal-Mart and the Defense Department "are faced with the prospect of redoing their infrastructure. This opens up the options to considering something very different" such as RuBee, Abell said.
RFID has one critical advantage over RuBee in its ability to read far more products in a short period of time. "RFID can do things that we can't do as well. RFID can take a bunch of things on a conveyor and it can read those items quickly. It has a very high bandwidth," Stevens said. "We're very low frequency, very slow. Most of the things that we do don't require speed. Realtime inventory with RFID is very difficult. We're never going to do Gillette razors. We're never going to do aspirin. We will do cellphones. We will do printers. We're trying to track something that has a little more value."
Abell agreed with the likely split between RFID and RuBee products. "It's going to work well for discrete manufactured products, such as IPods and cellphones, lawn and garden equipment," he said. "The negative is that it can only read about 10 reads per second. RFID UHF can handle 150-200 reads per second. RFID HF handles maybe as many as 100 reads per second."
From a price perspective, Stevens said that there is no significant price difference between RuBee and traditional RFID approaches.
Abell added that RuBee could work well for razor blades and other higher-priced small items that are attractive to shoplifters. A common technique used by shoplifters is to line a regular bag with aluminum foil and place stolen items in the bag, where the foil will prevent its RFID tag from communicating with anti-theft devices. A RuBee protected item would be able to easily communicate with its readers through the aluminum foil.
Stevens sees RuBee as having the potential to track every product regardless of where it is, allowing for a Google-like system to report on where products are at any time.
The IEEE statement announcing the work on the new protocol suggested one scenario for this kind of deployment: "IEEE P1902.1 will offer a real-time, tag-searchable protocol using IPv4 addresses and subnet addresses linked to asset taxonomies that run at speeds of 300 to 9,600 Baud. RuBee Visibility Networks are managed by a low-cost Ethernet enabled router. Individual tags and tag data may be viewed as a stand-alone, web server from anywhere in the world. Each RuBee tag, if properly enabled, can be discovered and monitored over the World Wide Web using popular search engines (e.g., Google) or via the Visible Asset's .tag Tag Name Server."
The statement also touted touted RuBee's low power consumption. "One of the advantages of long-wavelength technology is that the radio tags can be low in cost, near credit card thin (1.5 mm) and fully programmable using 4 bit processors," the IEEE statement said. "Despite their high functionality, RuBee radio tags have a proven battery life of ten years or more using low-cost, coin-size lithium batteries. The RuBee protocol works with both active radio tags and passive tags that have no battery."
The P1902.1 effort "will provide for asset visibility networking that fills the gap between the non-networked, non-programmable, backscattered, RFID tags widely used for asset tracking and the high-bandwidth radiating protocols for IEEE 802.11(TM) local area networks and IEEE 802.15(TM) personnel area and data networks," the statement said.