Wi-Fi RFID Tackles Medicine

By Eric Griffith

September 14, 2004

As the barcode replacement technology of RFID takes off, Wi-Fi companies don't want to be left behind. The latest entrant is a product specifically tackling healthcare facilities.

Radio Frequency identification, or RFID , a high-tech solution to replace barcodes as the number one way to track assets and automatically collect data in any organization, is quickly taking on a life of its own as companies like Wal-Mart begin using it to make sure no widgets are misplaced.

RFID is growing in importance, and Wi-Fi companies -- especially those specializing in location awareness of wireless devices -- don't want to be left behind. The differentiator for location companies is that Wi-Fi-based RFID doesn't have to be passive -- instead of just knowing the last known location of a tagged item, the Wi-Fi RFID tags can be active and can be continuously tracked in real time.

AeroScout (formerly Bluesoft) was the first to do RFID with Wi-Fi. Its active tags require a network overlay system that works concurrently with an existing WLAN. This week, the company announced a new device for its platform, the AeroScout Exciter, which will identify tags as they pass through a "choke-point" -- for example, a door at a loading dock. The Exciter forces the tag to make an additional transmission when the tag passes the choke-point, a forced tracking measure based on the product's location. The Exciter will be available in October.

A new entrant into RFID this week is Wavelink, which makes WLAN manangement systems. Its middleware products will now support RFID -- though not necessarily only Wi-Fi-based. However, it can be integrated with the Wavelink WLAN management platform.

Ekahau does do Wi-Fi-based RFID, but differentiates itself from AeroScout by selling tags that can be used with any existing WLAN deployment. Ekahau has a back-end system that requires customers to build their own applications to take advantage of RFID.

This is where PanGo Networks of Framingham, Mass. -- also a location-enabler for WLANs -- plans to put its stamp in Wi-Fi RFID. Today the company announced its PanGo Locator, an Enterprise Asset Visibility (EAV) system that will -- like Ekahau's system -- use proprietary Wi-Fi-based RFID tags to work with any existing WLAN system. The difference is, says Richard Barnwell, the company's CTO, that while the technology can and will be used in many industries, "for marketing we've picked healthcare as a particular customer -- hospitals in particular."

He says there's a large amount of time wasted in finding people and equipment in such environments. PanGo estimates that 20% of the capital in hospitals is tied up in mobile assets which can't be found and might also be easily stolen.

Using 802.11b in tags powered by standard AA batteries, PanGo Locator|Healthcare (working with the PanOS platform installed in a hospital's central server) will position and track any asset equipped with a tag. Items that move around a lot (like wheelchairs) can be set to send a signal more often than items that are relatively stationary (like heart monitors).

"Our tags have a small micro-controller," says Barnwell. "They don't go into sleep mode -- they completely shut off when not transmitting. They're only associated for the few seconds that they do transmission."

This also helps save on battery life. Barnwell estimates a unit that only has to report in every eight hours or so would get over four years out of a set of two AA cells.

PanGo Locator for healthcare will come with an application specific to the industry, allowing for easy modification of tags through a software interface -- the WLAN then configures individual tags or groups of tags as needed over the airwaves.

PanGo worked with Cisco to set up a trial at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston, where it's tracking assets in the ER and Cardiac Care Unit.

Other companies are also planning to become original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and integrators of the PanGo locator, including Tele-Tracking Technologies, which makes healthcare workflow automation technology, Four Rivers Software Systems, and Colubris Networks. The first two have more than 1,400 hospital customers already in the UK and North America.

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