Next-Generation RFID Network Swarms for Attention

Hive networks could cheaply track store goods and border crossings.

by / December 8, 2008

Photo: Hanan Potash, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: Central Texas Section of the Joint Communications and Signal Processing Chapter


Ultra-Cheap Network Swarming for Attention
Bees can't talk in the traditional sense -- unless you believe comedian Jerry Seinfeld's 2007 animated comedy, Bee Movie, to be real. But scientists have discovered bees are effective communicators of life-essential information, such as the direction of a food source. The insects also serve as inspiration for emerging technologies called "wireless hive networks." Texas Technology talked to engineer Hanan Potash, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers: Central Texas Section of the Joint Communications and Signal Processing Chapter, about the practical application of this new technology.

What exactly is a wireless hive?
It's [a network] of devices that are intelligent and are basically communicating with each other. They have protocols of communicating with each other. Believe it or not, there are only two animals on the planet that can give direction to each other. A mother bear can lead her cub to the food, but only a human and a bee can actually give directions. When a bee goes back to the hive, it goes through a dance, which conveys to the other bees the direction of the food, the distance and type of food.

What combination of technologies are hived networks built upon?
Now there is a whole bunch of technologies being developed. New technologies called "printed electronics" are around the horizon. They will be about the size of a postage stamp.

Another is called the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display, which is based on a Nobel Prize-winning invention of polymer that could actually conduct electricity. Those are the fundamentals of some new technology, like OLED display coming up from Sony.

People have been pushing RFIDs [radio frequency identification], but the problem is RFID has a silicon chip, which costs about $1.50. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been pushing farmers to tag all of their animals. Farmers just don't want to pay between $1.50 and $2.50 for those tags -- for cows and goats, never mind chickens. However, when does [cheaper] technology become a reality? RFID is a very complex integrated device. It has an antenna, logic, memory, a sensor and so forth.

Will [a combination of these technologies] become available in the marketplace within the next five years? Absolutely. I wouldn't be surprised if they show up within a couple of years.

If hive devices were used along the Texas-Mexico border to monitor crossings, would they be buried in the ground?
No, you would just drop them from the air. It would look like 2x2-inch or 4x4-inch pieces of paper. They'd be a couple cents apiece. With what happens with flood and deterioration, you would just send an airplane once a month and re-seed them.

How would you collect the data from the devices?
They would "talk" to each other by relay. You have some -- let's assume, often every mile -- a real computerized collection point, but the information goes by information hopping, like people talking. The hive device [handles] local processing during the information routing determination, so that it's not just a bunch of dumb devices with one central computer.

Pattern recognition is something that [hive] technology can push, and it's available today.


Outer Limits News Items

If several Texas lawmakers have their way, the state may soon ditch its legacy as an oil hot spot in favor of a clean, renewable and free energy source -- wind. In mid-July, Democrats and Republicans convened at the state Capitol to discuss how

to best harness wind power and put Texas on track to be a global leader in renewable energy.

State representatives met with officials from several different organizations, including the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, to hammer out how Texas can deliver wind-generated electricity statewide. Texas already leads the United States in wind energy production, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Current estimates are that existing wind farms power 1 million Texas homes.

However, getting wind power to those far from the wind farms won't be cheap. According to KXAN News in Austin, transmitting wind energy throughout the state would cost about $6.4 billion.

Big Game
At the 2008 E3 Media and Business Summit, a showcase for the video game industry, an unlikely guest attended: Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He gave a speech to video game industry executives, urging them to consider Texas as the ideal state to grow their business.

"All across the country, in places where smart, creative people gather to devise the next must-have game, they are joined by people who are willing to invest their capital to see new ideas succeed," Perry said. "I invite you to bring your ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to Texas, where our reasonable regulatory climate, tax structure and an excellent quality of life are ideal for business development."

Video games are the heart of a $28 billion industry that many predict will overtake Hollywood as the leader in entertainment media. According to a press release from the governor's office, "Texas is currently home to 92 game and software development companies that employ more than 2,800 people, the third-highest concentration in the nation."

In addition to the economic relationship, Perry called for more Texas investment in gaming-related programs at state universities and funding video game technology that can enhance medicine and education.

Collegiate Counterterrorism
Researchers at the Texas Tech Institute of Environmental and Human Health have produced, after seven years of work, a comprehensive tome on counteracting terrorism. The book, Advances in Biological and Chemical Terrorism Countermeasures, is the culmination of extensive work undertaken by 15 university researchers.

As its title suggests, the text focuses on weaponized biological and chemical agents and their potential uses by terrorists. The authors' research details how counterterrorism officials can detect and prevent such attacks. The authors also state the book is intended not just for academia, but also for educators, military personnel and local public safety officials, as well as anyone with an interest in the subject.

"This is really cutting-edge material and strategies," said Philip Smith, editor of the book and assistant professor of environmental toxicology, in a Texas Tech news release. "We think more and more people are going to need to be trained in these areas to protect our nation in the future. The terrorist threats are not going away, so this is kind of like the ultimate opportunity in an academic environment."

Unfriendly Skies
In August, one of the most extraordinary events ever conceived was to transpire in Texas: a giant floating banana in the sky. Concocted in 2006 by a visionary Canadian named Cesar Saez, the Geostationary Banana Over Texas project might have launched a wave of artwork in space.

Saez said he wanted to "add some humor to the Texas sky." However, funding from the Quebec Arts Council was insufficient to cover the cost of fabricating and launching the 1,000-foot fruit. Had it taken off as planned, the banana would have danced gently through the sky until it safely disintegrated.

Matt Williams Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines. He also previously served as the managing editor of TechWire, a sister publication to Government Technology.2