Cracking the Code on RFID

NFL Uses RFID to Enhance Game Day

Whether you’re a complete fanatic or a casual observer, this time of year seems to bring the football fan out in all of us. With an unending stream of factoids (thanks to RFID), it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype.


Since 2014, the NFL has been using Zebra’s ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID tags in the shoulder pads of players, giving the media and fans alike an unparalleled amount of data about the game and player performance.  

For the 2016/2017 season, the NFL expanded the use of RFID in a pilot where a specially designed Zebra UWB tag was embedded in the footballs used in Thursday night games; this according to an article published in September 2016 by RFID Journal. While the information from these tagged footballs is not for public consumption, (at least not yet), the league is using the data to gain a variety of insights on the game. This reportedly includes a study on what effect narrowing the width of the goal posts would have on the percentage of field goals made. With these tagged footballs, the NFL has information on the exact location of the ball and could determine how many field goals would have been made and missed, based on incremental narrowing of the goal posts.  Pretty cool stuff.

(Read the RFID Journal Article in its entirety)

Active Vs. Passive RFID

The NFL’s use of RFID is an example of active RFID, which is used for "locationing" applications, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start with the two basics types of RFID . . . active and passive.

Source: Zebra Technologies

Source: Zebra Technologies

Active Tags – With active tags, the power source (typically a battery) resides within the tag itself. There are 2 main types of active tags; transponders and beacons

  • Transponders are “woken-up” when they receive a signal from the reader and then transmit information back to the reader. 
  • Beacons on the other hand are always “on” and send out a signal at predetermined intervals.  Each beacon’s signal is received by reader antennas that are positioned around the perimeter of the area being monitored, and communicates the tag’s ID information and position.

Active RFID is commonly used to track real-time location of assets, typically large assets like rail cars that need to be tracked over long distances (though the NFL's use of active RFID proves it has broader application) and in high-speed environments like automatic toll booth collection. Typical read ranges for an active tag are much farther than for passive tags, but as the read range goes up, so does the cost. 

RFID Passive Tag.jpeg

Passive tags – A passive tag has no internal power source. Instead the tag uses power from the reader to initiate communication.  Because the power source does not reside within the tag itself, passive tags are less expensive than active tags. 

Passive RFID has the most practical application in business.  There are a number of reasons for that including a wide range of technologies to choose from and of course its lower cost.

How Business uses RFID to get over the Goal Line

Passive RFID has widespread application in manufacturing and distribution.  Common applications are: inventory management, asset utilization, product locationing, shipping and receiving, cross docking and more. Similar to standard barcoding, application and environment will determine what RFID technology will work best in your environment.  

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