A decade of RFID at SAIT

UHF detection progresses to the field-testing stage

Several projects of interest to the beef industry are in progress at the Centre for Innovative Information Technology Solutions, a.k.a. the RADLab at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary, as it rounds out its 10th year of researching advanced RFID applications for livestock.

The world-class SAIT RFID test lab is now in full swing gathering clients and new business. A unique combination UHF (ultra-high frequency) RFID-DNA tag for management purposes has progressed to the field-testing stage, and anticipation was building for the first RFID drone test flight to launch sometime near the end of April.

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The UHF-DNA tag project got underway in 2015 and some of the resulting tags designed and manufactured by lead researcher Sherry Yang and her team were applied to heifers at CL Ranches west of the city. The remainder will be tested at other ranches over the next year and a half.

When a UHF-DNA tag is applied, a small punch of ear tissue is taken to match an animal’s DNA to its RFID number.

The tag is made from a basic thermal polyurethane material that has been treated with chemicals to make it more flexible and durable when exposed to cold and ultraviolet light.

Glen Kathler, the applied research chair in RFID application development, says there are upwards of 50 chemical combinations with differing properties to choose from, so part of this project’s mandate is to find out if they chose the right mix.

Their initial UHF tags designed in co-operation with the beef industry, resulted in two popsicle-stick models and one hoop along with a reader to capture the data. Cattle at co-operating ranches and feedlots were tagged with these initial products in 2011.

This project earned Kathler the 2015 Alberta Science and Technology Award for innovation in agriculture, but in practical terms, UHF tags still remain on the workbench when it comes to traceability.

“The popsicle-stick form factor still exists, but we are not the manufacturer of commercial tags,” explains Kathler. “If a manufacturer wanted to consider our design, that would be great.”

The reality is low-frequency (LF) RFID technology introduced about 35 years ago, remains the most mature and widely accepted solution for animal traceability across the globe.

No country to date has adopted UHF technology for traceability in beef cattle, although three styles of UHF tags have been approved for cattle and are being used for management purposes in the U.S.

“All of the large tag manufacturers have UHF tags ready to go to market once a global numbering system is approved so that they know how to program the tags at the factory,” Kathler adds.

Creating a numbering system for UHF-RFID tags is easier said than done. For one thing it must meet all international RFID requirements and be compatible with manufacturing processes for low frequency tags.

This work is already underway by a team of international experts set up under the International Standards Organization (ISO) that is looking into potential numbering schemes for ISO countries. Kathler, Guillaume Parenteau, CEO of Quebec high-tech firm PLURITAG, and Canadian Cattle Identification Agency tag and technology manager Paul Laronde are members.

In the meantime Kathler can see commercial opportunities for UHF tags in the cattle sector.

In feedlots, for example, every animal receives a new dangle tag at entry linked to its national RFID number in the feedlot’s database. If the dangle tag has a UHF transmitter, it would allow for automated reading of these animals at sorting and loading.

Range cattle carrying UHF tags could be scanned by drones passing overhead so you could track your herd in the most remote of locations. This is the essence of a three-year UHF-UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) project that Kathler is working on in collaboration with Dr. John Church’s team at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., and Jeff Braisher of Kingsclere Ranch near Golden, B.C., where a UHF tag reader will take flight this spring thanks to an Idea-to-Innovation grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

One of the advantages to UHF technology is that it can read up to 500 tags a second making it very adaptable to managing large groups of cattle whereas low-frequency tech operates off a magnetic field and is more suited to reading tags one at a time. Another plus is the small size of the wire antenna needed to pick up the signal, which allows for almost endless design possibilities for UHF transmitters.

Our RFID testing lab

SAIT’s RFID test lab is one of only three in the world accredited to perform official standardized electronic tests for RFID tags.

Revamping the lab’s equipment started in 2013 with a $475,000 grant from Alberta. By 2015 it was accredited by the International Standard Organization (ISO), and the International Committee for Animal Recording (ICAR) in 2016 .

“At first we were focusing on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) framework requirements, but then decided to build an ISO/ICAR accredited lab so manufacturers would have a one-stop shop for Canadian testing,” says Bob Davies, the test lab’s quality manager and lead developer.

ICAR is the global registration authority for animal traceability equipment.

All livestock RFID tags must meet ICAR standards before the CFIA will approve them for traceability in Canada.

Once a tag passes the standard electronic tests for reading range, transmission frequency and accuracy, the durability and electronic performance of the tags are tested at -35 C as required by CFIA.

Full conformance testing of 50 transponders is required when manufacturers apply for a new ICAR registration on a tag, an integrated circuit or new technology. Limited testing is done when approved transponder coils and integrated circuits are added.

“The logical and most likely next step to expand our scope is testing transceivers that read the tags and also adding some mechanical testing capabilities like abrasion, shock, impact and accelerated ultraviolet aging to simulate degradation of the tag package under sunlight,” Davies says.

To maintain its ISO accreditation, the lab is audited every two years but the accuracy of its results are monitored continously by ICAR.

Davies now sits on an expert subcommittee that reviews ISO proposals for testing standards.

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