Sometimes, the best inventions aren’t really inventions at all, but instances where clever people discover a new, better use for a technology that’s existed for some time.

For example, the Chinese used gunpowder to treat skin diseases and as an insecticide for roughly 200 years before building the first primitive guns in the 10th century, and Teflon was first used in artillery shell fuses before coming into commercial vogue as a material to coat non-stick pans with.

RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, which has the potential to change the way utility professionals think about underground asset location, also started as a military invention before expanding to other industries.

Despite having technological roots in the WWII era, its importance to underground asset location is only now being realized.

What is RFID and why should I care?

Today, RFID technology can help utility workers quickly locate and positively identify assets that are buried underground.

Assets can be marked with tags that are loaded with data about that particular asset. When a utility professional wants to learn more about that asset, they can use a GPS locator to get close to it, a magnetic locator to precisely locate it and an RFID reader to learn more about it.

Facilitates storing digital information out in the field at the asset thereby creating a "data bridge" between the physical asset and the system in the office. This is the final step in giving the crew the assurance and confidence they need before digging which potentially can expose them to down systems, power outages or danger.

The implications for utility companies both public and private are staggering. These institutions can rest assured knowing they can more efficiently locate their assets in case of an emergency, and public utilities that have spent years off the grid can be marked and mapped, making it easier to update America’s aging underground infrastructure.

Early RFID-like technology

As mentioned, the use of devices similar to modern RFID technologies date all the way back to the Second World War when covert listening devices or “bugs” first developed. Just like their contemporary counterparts, these devices required no power source and were instead activated by electromagnetic waves.

While these first devices served as tools for espionage, the technology was soon replicated for other military purposes. The United Kingdom developed the IFF transponder, designed to interpret radar frequencies and identify enemy aircraft.

In 1973 Mario Cardullo called upon this technology to design the device closest to our modern day RFID technology—a passive radio transponder with a 16-bit memory.

Cardullo pitched the device as a useful tool in transportation, as it was able to identify vehicles and monitor their performances and routes, as well as in banking, security, and medicine. It was able to gather massive amounts of data and serve to identify patients and personnel.

The birth of modern RFID

Though Cardullo certainly heralded modern RFID devices, a patent for the abbreviated term was not granted until 1984 to researcher and inventor Charles Walton who went on to secure nine additional patents for related technology.

As foretold by Cardullo, RFID technology serves several industries. It has perhaps its greatest use in transportation. The railroad industry, for example, often tags stock to keep tabs on starting point, destination, and equipment characteristics.

At the start of the new millennium, major retailers began to recognize the tracking capabilities of RFID technology. By tagging their incoming goods, they could ensure just-in-time inventory and know for certain all products were received.

RFID as an underground asset location solution

The underground RFID marking system was created as a way for utility companies to locate and monitor underground assets.

This system has revolutionized the industry. Companies that once had to rely on landmarks and paper records in their search for assets can now find them quickly and easily by combining RFID trackers with hand-held GPS computers.

Demand for this new technology is growing, but many companies remain unaware of its existence or unconvinced of its full capabilities.

An underground RFID marking system is useful for any company, public or private, with a large underground infrastructure. The wider an organization’s distribution of assets, the more beneficial this system will be.

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