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The start of the Army 10 Miler, a running event attracting 20,000 participants each October at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., is a cacophony of unusual sounds. Participants yell out the traditional infantry HOOOO-HAH chant, followed by the starting gun--in true Army fashion, a booming artillery blast. But the sound that grabs every runner's attention is a high-pitched, unearthly squeal made by the 20,000 radio-frequency chips worn by the runners as they cross the starting line. For the runners, this is the real start of the race, because it captures the precise time their own performance begins.

The chip system captures the runners' times at the start of the race, the finish, and various points in between. Before the race, each runner's chip is assigned a unique seven-character code, which the chip transmits through a weak radio signal picked up by a technology called radio frequency identification (or RFID) each time the runner crosses a magnetic field, triggering the squealing sound that has become the system's signature.

A leading RFID system for athletic timing is made by ChampionChip, a Dutch company. As described by Mike Burns of Burns Computer Services, ChampionChip's U.S. representative, the system consists of the chip worn by the athlete, an antenna emitting the magnetic field that sits flat on the road under a tartan-patterned mat, a controller that provides the energy and reads the data from the antenna, and a collector that captures the data and connects to processing and transmission systems.

Time With the Chip, Not From the Gun

Runners like the chip because it provides the accurate time that elapsed between their crossing of the start and finish lines, shaving off those precious minutes it would have taken just to reach the starting line had a starting gun been used. Chips are used in world-class events as well, in which elite runners line up at the front and all the others are seeded at the start according to their anticipated pace.

The chip timing system also prevents cheaters from sneaking onto the course after the start or from cutting out large segments of the race by capturing data at split times as well as at the start and finish. This has yet another benefit when combined with the Internet, namely, real-time posting of participant performances on the event Web sites or transmitted by text message to cell phones. Friends and family members can then track the progress of runners through the race as closely as the runners themselves do.


The chip timing system at a race in Rockville, Maryland, U.S.A., captures the runners' ID number

and time with an antenna under the red rubberized track-surface mat at the finish line.

Burns tells the story of the 2004 Houston Marathon, which used the chip timing system and real-time transmission of the results to cell phone subscribers. Burns said he was watching the finish and saw "a woman runner almost stagger across the two sets of [antenna] mats at the finish and reach for her cell phone" to get a text message with her time. "When she got her time," Burns went on, "she started pumping her arm and jumping up and down" in celebration, even though a moment earlier, she was barely able to make it across the finish line.

A further advantage of the chip system is the automatic identification of all runners with their racing times, replacing the old system of wearing bar codes on a tear-away tag--along with the queues runners had to go through at the end of the race to hand in the bar code.

Great Career Opportunities for the Imaginative

The use of RFID extends well beyond athletic timing, and the industry is growing as fast as the technology finds new applications. As Bert Moore, president of IDAT Consulting and Education said, "There is no cookbook for RFID at the moment, but the technology is mature enough that it can move in any one of several different directions." He noted that the automotive, defense, retail, and health care industries are all very interested in this new technology, and large sums of money are often at stake. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, for example, has told its top 100 suppliers that it wants their shipments to use RFID tags by 2005, a request that is expected to cost some $2 billion.

To scientists and engineers, this will certainly translate into job opportunities, which they should expect to find when they can match the RFID technology to real-world end-user problems in particular. Moore cited, as an example, the pharmaceutical industry, which is struggling with the problem of counterfeit drugs and is looking into the use of RFID technology to ensure the integrity of its packaging through the supply chain. "Each level of packaging has its own pedigree," Moore noted, "and with this technology, the industry [could] track where everything went and when."

Experts even talk of a severe shortage of RFID engineers, which was reported at a Harvard Business School symposium in January 2004. What the industry needs in particular are engineers who have gained knowledge and experience in RFID technology, as well as in its business applications. Indeed, at this point, the business world is driving RFID's growth and development. Thus, as one of the panelists noted, "if you want to be an entrepreneur, this is the place to be."

Jack Bourque, president of WirelessCareers.Com and a 21-year veteran in professional recruitment for the wireless industry, underscores the conclusion of the Harvard panel. He says, "This is a great time to work in RFID." Bourque notes that the best technical opportunities are in the setup of RFID networks and development of software for RFID applications. He adds that "many engineers with B.S.E.E. degrees and hands-on experience setting up cellular networks" are successful in the field. However, he reports that clients looking for RFID engineers, mainly companies with demanding requirements for technical talent, prefer candidates with advanced graduate degrees in electrical engineering or computer science.

RFID Research in Focus

Bourque says that many university engineering schools now offer instruction in radio-frequency technology. But several institutions are also beginning to focus on RFID as a separate discipline for teaching and research. An example of this increased academic interest is the Auto-ID Labs, a consortium of six universities: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, Keio University in Japan, Fudan University in China, and the University of Adelaide in Australia. Their activities are funded by the Uniform Code Council Inc., an international standards and global commerce organization; industry groups; and government agencies.

Auto-ID Labs has a distinctly commercial focus, with its mission to "develop new technologies and applications for revolutionizing global commerce and providing previously unrealizable consumer benefits." In particular, one group at the MIT Auto-ID Lab conducts research on packing-case and pallet applications of RFID. Another group concentrates on connecting RFID technology to Internet-based functions, called Web services, for the exchange of data generated by supply-chain applications (e.g., inventory reports) used by business partners.

As for the University of St. Gallen group, it is part of another joint project with the Hochschule St. Gallen and ETH Zurich (the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule or Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) called M-Lab. The two institutions have teamed up to study the extension of automatic identification technologies, including RFID, into more business, industrial, and even home applications. In an interview last year in the RFID Journal, the lab's director, Elgar Fleisch, said that its research would focus on the use of these technologies with mobile computing devices, such as cell phones or personal digital assistants, and networks formed by connecting the computerized controls found in everyday home appliances and business machines.

As industry gears up for RFID and the applications proliferate, the need for technical talent will likely continue to expand, providing solid accomplishments and rewards to those in the field ... creating feelings not unlike those felt when crossing a marathon's finish line.

Alan Kotok is Next Wave's managing editor and an occasional distance runner who gets seeded well toward the back of the pack.

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Careers.