RFID Applications Keep Expanding

Aug 19, 2020

1973 was a key year in the evolution of radio-frequency identification (RFID), with the first two patents being filed in the United States, one for an active RFID tag and the other for a keyless entry system. The following 20 years saw rapid commercial expansion of RFID with deployments across Europe and the US in transportation, animal tracking, and various inventory-related applications. As the technology matured in the 1990s, a range of standards emerged, and, by the end of the decade, over 1,000 RFID patents had been filed globally.

2002 was another landmark year when NXP, Sony, and Nokia introduced Near Field Communication (NFC) for contactless data transfer on low-power mobile devices, leading to its standardization on all major smartphones.

Almost 50 years since these first patents were filed, RFID adoption shows no signs of slowing, with Statista, a leading provider of market data, forecasting global market growth from $20 billion (USD) in 2020 to over $44 billion (USD) by 2025. Here, we discuss some of the more popular uses of RFID technology today, consider some of the developments that have kept the technology relevant, and look at the applications that are emerging to drive its future growth.

RFID Use Is Established Across a Wide Range of Sectors

RFID has three main variants based on carrier frequency and coupling method (see table below). Each offers its own advantages, allowing RFID devices to be tailored to different use cases. NFC, as a subset of RFID, operates within the High Frequency (HF) range of the RFID spectrum.

Low Frequency (LF) Inductive Coupling
125 kHz to 145 kHz
A few centimeters upto 1 m
High Frequency (HF) Inductive Coupling (NFC)
13.56 MHz
A few centimeters upto 1.7 m
Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) Backscatter Coupling (RAIN)890 MHz to 960 MHz
Up to 6 m (passive) More than 100 m (active)

Technology evolutions across all three variants have seen tags become ever smaller as the cost of the technology has plummeted, leading to RFID adoption in a wide range of applications. RFID and NFC address specific subsets of applications; RFID is item-centric, with the attachment of an RFID tag to an item enabling it to report its identity and other information to computer networks. NFC, on the other hand, with its very short range, is a user-centric technology, requiring a deliberate tap by the user, lending itself to secure functions such as payments or building access.

According to IDTechEx, many tens of millions of RFID tags are in use globally for a growing range of tasks, as summarized in the table below, which also gives a view on the most popular markets.

Key Events Securing RFID’s Future

Over time, NFC and RAIN have emerged as the most popular RFID variants. Several recent developments have driven their uptake, including:

  • In 2014, the RAIN RFID Industry Alliance was founded to foster the development of interoperable UHF RFID applications, paving the way for further growth. 
  • The IoT growth is creating a huge hunger for data generated by embedded sensors. Low-cost RAIN tags make it possible to equip many more “things” with a basic level of intelligence.
  • In 2018, Apple announced that all iPhones, from the XR/XS models and later, would natively read NFC tags. With Android smartphones already offering this functionality, NFC is estimated to now be available on around 2.2 billion phones, unlocking the full potential of NFC as organizations explore an expanding number of use cases.
  • The emergence of low-cost, chipless RFID tags that store information in printable resonators and delay lines and are implemented in flexible substrates, opens RFID use to new high-volume and cost-sensitive applications.

These key developments have ensured that RFID technology remains relevant in today’s fast-changing world, positioning it as an enabler for a growing number of applications.

The Potential for RFID 

The above developments have created solid platforms for growth for both RFID RAIN and NFC technology. The retail sector will continue to be a major user of RAIN technology, with apparel tagging consuming an estimated 10 billion RFID labels in 2019. Contactless cards will also be a significant driver of growth for RAIN technology, in areas such as contactless payment, transit, and secure access applications. Further areas that are expected to increase use of RAIN technology include:

  • Animal tagging, a legal requirement in many countries, consuming over 580 million tags in 2019
  • Airline Baggage Handling – IATA now requires airlines to tag luggage with RAIN technology
  • As an inexpensive technology, RAIN has the potential to turn many everyday objects into smart “things” that can be connected to the IoT

The enormous number of NFC-enabled smartphones now in use globally creates huge potential for growth in applications based on this technology. 

Public transportation has begun to use NFC technology to allow users access by touching their phones to turnstiles at the entry and this application is set for global expansion. In retail, brand owners are using NFC in smart packaging to create “physical-digital” shopping experiences. By tapping a product with an embedded NFC tag, the consumer gains access to anything from branded videos to social media product reviews (figure below).

Retailers use NFC Tags to enhance the shopping experience and track inventory. (Source: Tatchaphol/Shutterstock) The automotive sector is another area where manufacturers are using NFC to enhance the user experience. High-end models, such as BMW and Tesla, are deploying NFC tags within their vehicles to automate a number of functions including shared vehicle access, driver setup, infotainment customization, and many more.

Finally, in the medical sector, NFC technology is also well-suited for implanted devices that must stay inside the body for years and therefore must be highly energy-efficient, conserving as much power as possible. For these applications, the medical practitioner can use a reader to activate the tag only when necessary and can also transfer power wirelessly.

These are only a few examples of the innovative applications that are emerging to leverage both RFID RAIN and NFC technology. Many more examples are emerging across most sectors as the size and cost of RFID tags shrink.


Although RFID technology has been available for almost 50 years, it is still in the early stages of its technology lifecycle. Initially used mainly for asset tagging and tracking, recent developments have resulted in smaller and cheaper tags, broadening its appeal to a wider range of applications. The integration of NFC technology in most modern smartphones has created an enormous platform for NFC application development and, at the same time, efforts by the RAIN RFID Alliance to ensure interoperability have created a stable foundation for RFID growth outside of the consumer sector.

After 50 years, RFID technology is just entering its prime.


Ian Wright is a freelance writer specializing in a range of electronic technologies including wireless, IoT, robotics, and semiconductors. Prior to becoming a freelance writer, Ian had a long career in the telecoms industry, working for one of the UK’s leading mobile operators.