What is RFID?

Radio Frequency Identification is a generic term covering a suite of electronic methods of identifying an item in the general area using radio transmissions. It usually consists of a reader, antenna and tag (or transponder) as part of the system. The reader energises (or triggers) and transponder and listens for the return signal which is unique to the tag. The antenna is the passive interface that attenuates this signal and can be any many forms.

What is UHF?

Ultra High Frequency is a generic term given to radio signals between 300MHz and 3Ghz and is the most used of all bands with uses ranging from digital television to cell phone transmissions. For RFID there are a number of bands used depending on the each countries rules. The most widely used bands are between 902-928MHz (USA and South America) and 865-867Mhz (Europe). There are many sub-sets of these bands depending on the country of intended use. These bands are unlicensed but the power output is controlled in most cases to up to 4W. UHF has the benefit of high data transmission with relatively good penetration of the signal through air. This allows the RFID reader to read huge numbers of tags every second and employ sophisticated anti-collision algorithms to avoid two tags transmitting their signal at the exact same time.

What are transponders?

The transponder is used to identify a person in a race by sending a unique digital code when required to an RFID reader. The transponder is attached to the athlete or athletes equipment in some form. Transponders come in all shapes and sizes and work at all kinds of frequencies. RFID Race Timing Systems use two specific type of transponder that are perfect for sports timing. Both are passive transponders meaning they do not use a battery to transmit their signals to a reader.

RFID Race Timing Systems started building timing systems in 2003 using Texas Instruments 134khz low frequency transponders. They have excellent reliability and readability under field conditions. The transponders are hermetically sealed in a glass capsule and can be read under water if necessary. The downside to low frequency is that only one transponder code can be read by a reader at any one time. Sometimes a transponder may fail to read if two transponders are in the same read field. However techniques are used to avoid this problem by ‘locking on’ to the closest transponder and using multiple receiver loops attached to multiple reader circuits. This technology is still in use today, particularly with animal ID. RFID Race Timing Systems has moved onto the next generation of RFID for sports timing but still sells these low frequency systems from time to time.

Today we have concentrated on UHF Gen 2 RFID transponders. These generally use radiated electrical energy to transmit their information to a reader antenna and the read distances are substantially more than for low and high frequency transponders that use inductive coupling. A great deal of research and development has been devoted to UHF technology because the transponder (or tag) is usually low cost consisting of thin flexible copper antenna and tiny integrated circuit the size of a grain of sand. These transponders can be read in large numbers at the same time using anti-collision algorithms. These algorithms were further enhanced with the adoption of EPC Class 1 Generation 2 protocol amongst the world leaders in tag and reader manufacture. RFID Race Timing Systems had evaluated many forms of UHF tags and readers and Ultra uses the best tags, antennas and readers known in the world for optimum performance. The tags in particular improve with time due to more sensitive integrated circuits that can couple the tiny energy sent from the reader and back-scatter the signal – all without an internal battery.

How much equipment do I need?

This is a common question given everyone is on a budget. It really depends on what the event is, how large it is and most importantly the width and number of timing points required. A full scale Ironman event will need many control boxes and associated antenna mats or side antennas because of the number of timing points expected. However a reasonably large 1000 person fun run may only need one Ultra8 for a single 4m finish line. A separate start line in a different location will need its own system as well doubling the requirement. But not all races need start line systems. For really small club events of up to 250 people we recommend the new Joey system. Contract timers use their equipment almost every weekend so can afford many systems to cover mutliple races and split points. A club is on a much tighter budget. We understand the different operating models for users and can suggest the best system for the budget.

What technology is around the corner?

Over the years we have found that RFID Race Timing Systems do not go out of date rather the requirements of timers change. When events grow in popularity or different types of events are added to the timer’s range it is ultimately here that a move towards the new technology occurs.

The low frequency transponders have been the benchmark for sports timing for many years are still in regular use with pro timers and clubs alike. Our HDD System continues to be a great performer for all types of events delivering a robust timing platform with the economy of re-usable transponders.

Ultra with UHF technology offers more flexibility with the use of disposable tags. There are also reuseable HuTags and recently developed disposable ankle tags for multisport events. There is no forseable game changer when it comes to new RFID technologies. We expect the current generation of UHF and active tags to be around for a long time.

Transponder pricing

The world of RFID technology is considerably wider than the application for sports timing, and as such there are numerous producers of tags around the world. Due to the diverse nature of RFID users, many different options exist in disposable tags varying in size, style and price. RFID Race Timing has thoroughly researched the market and will provide guidance as to preferred suppliers for race timing. We also provide very competitive tags based on the volume discounts we have available to us. Currently we recommend Smartrac for tags but Alien also produces some high performance tags.

Our competitors choose to have a single tag tied to their system, so they can become the sole supplier and control the price you pay for tags. The business model they operate is to discount their system prices knowing that once you are on board they will more than recoup the discount in inflated tag prices. Compare the savings on our online calculator and see the true price you are paying for your timing system.

The price of our supplier’s tags is well below that of our competitors. The only reasons we can think of is that the manufacturing costs of their unique tags are dramatically more expensive, or they are taking advantage of the fact that if you have their system they have to pay their prices. We ask the simple question, why pay more than twice the price for the consumable tags when you don’t have to with ULTRA?

A few cents price difference multiplied by large numbers of competitors becomes significant amounts of money. Just think in a 50,000 competitor event, saving 10 cents is $5,000…..but a 60 cent/tag saving will be a cool $30,000 to your bottom line. We know that you can save this much in tag prices.

Passive versus Active RFID

Passive UHF tags have no onboard battery so they get their energy from the reader signal. The tag then reflects a signal back to the reader which is decoded. An active tag has an onboard battery that helps transmit a much more powerful signal to the reader when it is triggered. Passive tags are much cheaper to produce and have an infinite lifespan. The down side is that they can be harder to read if they do not derive enough energy from the reader, or their signal reflected back is compromised by environmental conditions. An active tag usually has a perfect transmission unless the internal battery dies.

Active tags are too expensive for mass participation sports but are better suited to motor sport and high budget events like The Olympics

Passive tags are used in 99% of the world’s mass participation events and there are only several timing system manufacturers who have perfected the art of getting high read rates in difficult environments. RFID Race Timing Systems is one of them.

Do you sell scoring software?

We do not sell or provide an RFID Race Timing System branded solution for scoring software. This is because there are already many excellent products out there that can interface to the Ultra and Joey. Some of our competitors force you to use their propietary software in an attempt to fatten their profits. With our timing systems you are free to choose and change if neccessary. We like the prodicts Racetec and RaceDirector but there many other packages out there that interface with RFID Race Timing Systems. One of these is PikaTimer which was developed by one of our timers and is a simple, open source scoring program. Other timers choose to write their own software and we provide all the communication parameters to facilitate this.

Do you handle online registration?

Our answer is much like that for scoring software. There are plenty of solutions out there already which are easy to integrate into your timing service or club activities. It is a simple process of just downloading the participant list from the online registration system once entries close. This file is then imported into your favourite race scoring software prior to the race. There is a wide range of pricing and deals with 3rd party registration platforms so we advise you to shop around.