subsurface utility location

Photo provided from the Damage Prevention Professional Library


In Part 1 of this in depth look at the world of RFID and its uses within the subsurface utility industry, I covered the basics of the technology and some of the general features that make it stand out among other tools used to locate, map, and identify assets.


Now we’ll dive a bit deeper into the technological aspects of RFID in order to illustrate the advantages this kind of system has over older, less reliable methods.


Transponder Components

One essential element of an RFID system is the tag (or transponder). If we break the tag into its own basic elements, we’ll find it’s comprised of a chip and an antenna. Mounted together to form a simple inlay, these two components are encapsulated to form the tag.


The material used to encapsulate the electronics varies based on the specific environmental conditions defined through geographical characteristics. In addition to a variety of materials used to make the tag, transponders themselves can vary in size with some as small as a grain of rice and some as large as a brick. Others can be compressed to adhere to assets like a label.


Like other hardware relying on computer chips to operate, the memory, read/write ability, and power requirements are dependent on the capabilities of the electronics. Some are able to record a rich array of data while others are programmed to service a single purpose.


These smaller single-use tags are sometimes referred to as “smart labels,” and are commonly utilized to identify assets such as cases and palettes. Unlike other systems, RFID is unique in its ability to conform to particular assets with relative ease and simplicity.


Many smart labels, for example, are encoded and printed on demand, resembling something like a bar code system. Printers encode unique text or code on each label that can then be designated to a particular pallet or case.


The superior durability of RFID tags can also be described through the technology behind it. With some projects requiring exceptionally hardened materials to preserve the integrity of the system over many years, tags can be encased to withstand exceedingly wet conditions as well as extreme temperatures, and a variety of potentially harmful acids and solvents, which would cause other systems to deteriorate.


RFID tags also offer utility agencies the ability to store various types of data which can be used to create multi-dimensional mapping systems that are more complete than those facilitated though other means. As opposed to read-only tags programmed only once by the manufacturer, read/write tags are quickly becoming prevalent within RFID systems.


These tags allow for thousands of data revisions throughout their lifetime while still maintaining memory partitions for read-only serial numbers and other essential data used to identify an asset.


For pallets and cases, the writeable nature of the data drive can be used to record what specific items are currently loaded into a particular asset. When the contents are unloaded, the writeable information can be erased and reused when it’s needed again.


Reader/Writer Components


The complementary hardware used to detect and manage information within tags are reader/writer devices. Just like tags, reader/writers come in a variety of shapes and sizes capable of adhering to the needs of a particular RFID system.


A major advantage of RFID is its superior flexibility when it comes to implementing hardware into terrain. Unlike more temperamental systems such as bar-code readers, RFID does not require a direct line of sight between the tagged asset and the reader. The ultrahigh frequency (UHF) band used in a number of commercial RFID systems can offer operators a read range of more than 30 feet.


RFID’s ability to communicate with external computer systems also gives it a significant edge on its competitors. Through wireless networks, utility agencies can integrate with LANs to exchange data with a host system.  This gives contractors and other utility managers the power to integrate RFID systems into an already established host system.


Small readers designed to connect to handheld computer hardware gives users the capability to add RFID to existing applications while maintaining an old system.


Integrating an RFID system into a subsurface utility layout requires an understanding of the variables associated with its equipment. RFID is simply a technology that can be applied to any number of different utility systems constrained by their particular locations and tasked with a variety of duties.

Above all other traditional ways of mapping and identifying subsurface assets, RFID provides users with an efficient, secure, and reliable way of maintaining public and private utility services to a wide variety of real-world scenarios.


For more information on the InfraMarker, Berntsen’s cutting-edge, all-in-one RFID marking system, visit the InfraMarker product page or request a catalog.