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The Howler

How RFID Timing has Revolutionized Running Races and Beyond

Ian Wallace, Columnist

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The front and back side of the RFID tags used at the Vermont State Cross Country Championships. The chip is the tiny circle in the middle.

It’s the 2018 Vermont state Cross Country Championships.  Hundreds of runners from all 14 counties and three athletic divisions brave the sleet, attach their RFID race bibs, and run the five kilometer course as fast as possible.  The sleet is nothing new, but the RFID race bibs have revolutionized the way the race timing industry – and the ski industry – handle large crowds.

The backside of the Woods Trail Run RFID tag. Notice the antenna coils and the green timing chip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The front side of the Thetford Woods Trail Run RFID tag.

The primary benefit of RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) timing in the race industry is that it can track the location of thousands of runners across checkpoints to accurately time events and curb cheating in longer events such as Marathons.  While RFID’s come in multiple varieties for various transponder distances, the running industry employs passive, ultrahigh frequency (UHF) RFID technology. Passive transponders are lightweight and inexpensive because they don’t need to power themselves, and ultrahigh frequency waves can read bib tags at chest height.  The high frequency radio waves are emitted by a reader, which is located at the finish line of every RFID-timed race. The reader, located on the ground, sends a signal to the tags, which is captured by the antenna and sent to a chip which contains a unique number. The energy from the radio waves is captured by the antennae, and the chip sends a backscatter wave to the reader, the reader recognizing the unique radio wave as the number on the tag.  The reader then links the tag number to the athlete’s identity, records the time that the signal was received, and uses the information for individual and team points tallies.

The Okemo ski pass.

Much to the dismay of BFUHS Ski and Ride program participants, the same passive, ultrahigh frequency RFID technology has spread to ski resorts, Okemo in particular.  At the bottom of chairlifts, skiers and riders must wear their passes to pass through gates. They stop unpaid skiers from hitting the slopes, but they can be a nuisance for skiers and riders at BFUHS, as signal transmission is imperfect, and the passes don’t activate until 9:30, later than many participants prefer to start the day.  However, they provide valuable information to the resort as to where people are skiing, enabling them to prioritize improvements to the mountain.

Ultimately, while RFID tags may be inconvenient, they are an inexpensive, effective solution to handle crowds and accurately track their location and are here to stay.

Congratulations to the BFUHS Girls Cross Country team whose RFID tags cumulatively sent signals to the reader before the other teams.

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