An Application That's Buggy by Design

By Mel Duvall Print this article Print

In an RFID-enabled termite detector, a hint of how a new technology can enable innovation.

There have been some pretty far-out proposals put forward for the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. But using RFID to track and exterminate termites?

Dow Chemical isn't putting tiny RFID chips on the backs of termites and zapping them with radio frequencies, but its use of the technology does demonstrate that companies may find uses for RFID that were never conceived.

One of the company's primary products for detecting termites is its Sentricon System. The Sentricon devices (manufactured by the company's AgroSciences business unit) are about 12 inches tall and are designed to be installed in the ground around a building. The devices have openings which termites can enter; inside are pieces of wood.

To determine if termites are in the area, pest control companies essentially go to each of the devices, unscrew the top and pull out the pieces of wood. If the wood has the tell-tale signs of being eaten by termites, the pest control company springs into action.

Andrew Wurtz, RFID project lead for the Sentricon System, says that while simple, the devices have one major drawback. In order to inspect the devices, the pest control technician has to bend down, unscrew, and visually inspect each device. On some large commercial buildings, the devices might be installed every 15 feet, so the task can be very time consuming.

As early as 2002, Dow began experimenting with how RFID tags and readers might be used to eliminate the back-straining part of the process.

The company figured out a way to attach an RFID tag to a piece of paper, which sits between two blocks of wood in the Sentricon device. When a termite eats the wood and piece of paper, the RFID tag can detect the damage. "It registers like a break in the circuit," said Wurtz. "Our research showed that termites would eat the paper first—it's like candy to them."

With the RFID-enabled Sentricons, a pest control expert walks around a building, and using a device that looks similar to a metal detector, simply needs to pass near each Sentricon to determine if termites are present.

The savings can be substantial. The RFID-enabled Sentricons have been able to increase operator efficiency by 67 percent and reduce actual site inspection time by six minutes. For the average operator, that translates into being able to increase possible site visits from about 12 to 20 per day.

Wurtz said it did take a considerable amount of trial and error to perfect the system. For one thing, the company had to experiment with a number of different tags from RFID vendors before it found one that was waterproof enough to be installed in the ground, and that cost less than $5. Dow also had to experiment with a number of different RFID readers to find one that was suitably tough, because early readers were being damaged as users tossed them into the back of trucks or banged them against rocks.

"The great thing about this is that it highlights that RFID has uses well beyond what many people regard as its traditional application," said Wurtz.

This article was originally published on 2007-09-17
Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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