The State of RFID and Student Tracking Systems

01/07/2013 06:50

Safety and security measures have always been a priority for schools to protect students while getting on and off the school bus, but add technology to the mix and now districts are taking advantage of what RFID can offer to track student ridership.

Student-Card WebRFID is not a new technology. In its most basic form, it is comprised of a scanning antenna, a transceiver with a decoder to interpret the data and the RFID tag — a transponder — that is programmed with information. But the technology has made progress in quality in the last year. Within the RFID industry, new products geared toward large retail establishments and manufacturers included a tag to monitor metal items and an all-in-one reader with GPS and cellular technology for transmitting temperature data.

For schools, though, the components to RFID-based student tracking systems are fairly basic as the aforementioned description, and the systems are available as passive or active.

A passive system means that the RFID tag or transponder in a card or badge does not have a battery. The tag requires a sensor reader to supply power to the tag, which then sends the information encoded in its memory. An active system includes RFID tags with a battery that can be used as a partial or complete power source for the tag’s circuitry and antenna.

One main advantage of an active-tag system over a passive-tag system is longer reading distances. But passive tags carry a longer lifespan than active tags, which means less tag replacements. While both types offer their pros and cons, one system is no better than other, as both use the same proven technology. It’s a matter of which system is best suited for a particular application.

Be it passive or active, RFID student tracking systems include cards or badges with tags that are encrypted or coded to make it difficult for unauthorized readers to retrieve student information. Regardless of vendor, the tags used in these specific systems only include a random number, or a series of numbers in order, coded by the manufacturer and is assigned to a student.

Zonar’s ZPass is one example of a passive student tracking system. As students pass by the ZPass reader that’s mounted somewhere near the bus entrance, their time, date and location is logged and transmitted to a secure database.

Chris Oliver, vice president of marketing for Zonar, said ZPass is installed in “tens of thousands” of school buses, and noted that presently “a lot” of school districts are considering using the system. Oliver mentioned how a system like this can help transporters or school district officials understand how ridership volume lends itself to other efficiencies, such as route optimization or load balancing. Additionally, a system like this can also be tied to a district’s nutritional program, checking out books at the school library, even charge for student transportation, as is the case at some districts in Colorado.

“Tracking student ridership is a very significant issue,” he said. “We’re very much at the beginning of the adoption curve, and there are a lot of reasons behind it. From the economic side, understanding the ridership volumes transported on a regular basis, and the reasons why, lends itself to greater economies of scale. We anticipate tremendous growth within the next school year or two.”


Another technology that seeks to enter onto the school bus for ridership tracking is biometrics — namely, fingerprint recognition. One new startup company, Hunstville, Ala.-based IDair, offers a touchless fingerprint scanning system, which claims to read fingerprints from up to six meters away.

The company attended the NAPT trade show last October in Memphis, Tenn., for the first time. “The feedback from some consultants and industry experts was that biometrics, its price point and liability has just now come to a point where it makes good sense,” said Jay Ange, IDair’s director of sales.

The company’s fingerprint reader does not require a person to place their fingertip onto a surface, and it uses fingerprint templates to authenticate a person. When a person’s fingerprint is read, the collected image is enhanced and processed into a digital file, which contains a “map” of the features found in the image. That image is destroyed once it is processed while the map is saved as a fingerprint template. Then the current map is compared to the stored maps to authenticate/match. 

Fingerprint templates have been around for some time, and Ange noted that these templates do not allow someone to reconstitute fingerprints.

Still, privacy issues remain as the general public may not know exactly how biometric fingerprint technology works, but the definition of privacy means something different today than it did five years ago, Ange said.

“By and large biometrics are going to be used as a method to enhance your privacy. That transition is still occurring, but I believe we’re getting to that point.” STN


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