A new system developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory may soon revolutionize security systems and inventory catalogues for companies and government agencies.
Developed by Greg Hanson and John Jones of ORNL’s Engineering Science and Technology Division and Angela Sexton of the Computational Sciences and Engineering Division, the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Accountability System utilizes radio frequency technology to monitor the locations of personnel and inventory.
A pilot test of the system during the last two years at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s Washington Navy Yard resulted in a critical success, Steimer said.
“By putting the RFID system in, it allows the property to be monitored continuously,” Hanson said. “They were reducing the manpower costs by a couple million dollars a year.”
The system also worked perfectly in accounting for personnel, said Gary Steimer, a program manager in ORNL’s National Security Directorate. He cited one example of a planned evacuation last November where the system was able to determine that no employees were trapped in the building and by what times and exits each employee left the building. All employees were accounted for far more quickly with the system than without it.
The system was so successful that the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency asked ORNL to install the system at the agency’s facility in St. Louis. To the agency, the advantages of the system far outweigh its detractions.
The accountability system operates through a network of radio frequency receivers. An individual receiver creates a zone where it can communicate with a radio tag that’s attached to a person or piece of equipment, thereby ascertaining the person or object’s position. The receiver then transmits the information to a computer, where the data is recorded.
“(Having) them at places where there isn’t a bunch of stuff impeding the signals, walls and metal doors, that was probably our biggest engineering problem,” Steimer said.
The attraction of the system lies in its ability to add security and cut costs simultaneously.
“A lot of companies and government agencies have a lot of items that need to inventoried,” Steimer said. “This sometimes takes people away from their jobs to inventory these items. The system is virtually a hands-free inventory.”
Meanwhile, the system can monitor the movements of all personnel within the building. The receivers record when personnel cross zones and enter or exit the building. In an emergency, the receivers are able to discern if all personnel have left the building or where the trapped personnel are. For rescuers, this is valuable information, ORNL officials said.
Despite the system’s success, concerns have been raised about privacy under the system. But Hanson said once people understood how the system worked, their privacy fears were allayed.
Steimer said workplace security is the system’s main priority.
“I think tracking of people will become more commonplace when people realize they’re being tracked for their own health and not on a step-by-step basis.”
But he admits that “a lot of companies are wrestling with the privacy issue.”
Plans are already being proposed to install the RFID Accountability System at ORNL, but how high the demand for the system is remains uncertain. Although the system has its obvious advantages, the issue of privacy will have to be resolved between companies and their employees.
Hanson has an idea of the where the system will be most used: “Mainly, people are interested in certain types of government facilities and private facilities where people have real safety concerns with their employees.”
For now, the system operates in a few places, but soon it may be the standard security and inventory system for government facilities, powerful companies and even universities.

Chris Tepedino
Staff Writer