Startup Offers RFID System That Can Be Self-Installed

The boxed solution, from RFRain, comes with low-cost readers and antennas, networked to a gateway running filtering and management firmware that can then forward data to a cloud-based server, all within a few hours after the box is opened

May 15, 2018—RFID solutions startup RFRain has a goal of making UHF RFID technology ubiquitous, with tags applied to most products bought and sold around the world, and with reading and data-management systems easy enough to deploy that most retailers and suppliers can do it themselves, no matter their size. To accomplish this goal, says Danny Akaoui, the company’s founder and CEO, RFRain is offering a turnkey, cloud-based solution that will be uniquely easy to install.

Akaoui’s pursuit of a low-cost, accessible solution started when he visited Lebanon and began looking into RFID technology. He had previously worked at Harris Corp., where he invented—and won an Emmy Award for—broadcast router technology. “The experience allowed me to become a very well-rounded engineer,” he says, “who is proficient in both hardware and software designs.”

Akaoui later joined Washington, D.C., satellite company iDirect to lead a team of engineers that brought the next generation of maritime and aeronautical satellite routers to the market. Following that work, with some free time in Lebanon, he ordered an RFID developers kit from Jadak and began investigating RFID solutions.

“That was when I saw the complexity of building an RFID system,” Akaoui says. He found that solutions were typically pieced together to include elements from a variety of vendors, and that users such as retailers, brands and logistics providers often did

not make it past the pilot stage. Akaoui says he felt, at the time, that he needed to offer a system that was easier to deploy. “I was never deterred from complex challenges,” he states.
The resulting company, RFRain, is an original equipment manufacturer for hardware, as well as a software supplier, that makes UHF RFID products for solutions providers. The firm is based in Sarasota, Fla., and makes its readers and gateways with remotely upgradable software stacks that are built into the hardware.

The RFRain team began by developing a fixed reader that, according to the company, was low in cost and easy to install. It comes with RFRain’s firmware and middleware, as well as a connection to the company’s cloud-based server. The readers have built-in integrated circuits from Impinj, with external antennas cabled to the reader. The company uses tags from a variety of vendors, including HID Global and GAO RFID.

RFRain also built a gateway to receive data from the readers (up to 25 readers can connect to a single gateway), and then identify any exceptions and forward data—including alert requests—to the server so that a text or email message can be issued to an authorized party. For example, if a product with a pending expiration data were to arrive at a warehouse, an alert could be forwarded to prompt warehouse personnel to move that item to the retailer faster.

By using the network of readers and gateways, linked to a cloud-based server, users can set up a low-cost RFID reading solution that provides zone-level or more granular location data at a lower cost than traditional real-time location systems or fixed reader solutions, the company reports.

RFRain offers its Inventory Management System (RFR IMS) in a box, which includes a reader, a gateway and built-in firmware, enabling users to begin testing prior to launching an RFID deployment. For the logistics market, the company offers its inventory-and warehouse-management solution to manage the network of readers, as well as the data collected by those readers, in a warehouse from a remote location. In addition to logistics, Akaoui says, the initial targeted customers include retailers, warehouses, health-care facilities and manufacturers.

“We are in the process of changing the way containers are being tracked inside a warehouse using our passive RFID solution,” Akaoui states. “All you need is a gateway, a reader and an antenna to start locating and streaming the data in the cloud for access to the data in real time, from anywhere with Internet access.”

RFRain is also selling solutions for hospitals. The company provides an overhead reader and antennas for installation in corridors and rooms, enabling health-care facilities to identify assets and the rooms in which they are located, or to recognize staff members or patients based on badge or wristband reads. At least one hospital is currently piloting the technology to detect the real-time locations of its assets from any room within the building. Like other companies piloting the technology, Akaoui says, the hospital has asked to remain unnamed.

Whether for retail, logistics or health-care applications, Akaoui says, simplicity is at the center of the solution. Since most of the intelligence is built into the gateway, the filtered and processed data can be transmitted to a server and then be accessed by users via an open application programming interface. “Anybody who has a Web application can interface with our system,” he explains, adding, “The customer can have their own server on the premise” where the technology is being used, “or they can use the cloud.” In either case, he says, the firm offers data encryption to secure the collected data.

The readers do not need to be fixed, Akaoui notes. In some cases, the system is being piloted in warehouses, with readers mounted on forklifts. In that way, tags can be interrogated as a forklift travels around a warehouse, eliminating the need to install readers and antennas throughout the facility. In this kind of deployment, he adds, the gateway would be installed on the forklift, along with the reader.

RFRain prices a typical deployment, which consists of a reader, a gateway and a full software stack with cloud support, at$3,499. “The solution allows a customer to install our system and run a pre-installed zone in half an hour or less,” Akaoui reports, “and to store the data in the cloud for easy access using our Zone Manager.”

The company aims to allow customers to test the system prior to deployment, he says, at little cost. “When a customer receives the RFR-IMS,” Akaoui states, “the system is already pre-installed with a complete zone to start detecting items immediately and stream their assets in the cloud. The solution could take a half an hour to install.” According to Akaoui, the pilot programs began around February 2018 and are still under way.