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Construction Interconnectivity: What Is Near-Field Communication (NFC)?
It seems with the advent of each new piece of technology, they spur new ideas and sometimes hard-to-follow acronyms that put you out of your comfort zone.
Call it efficiency, or desperately short attention spans. Big ideas and the latest concepts of the world of science and industry are compressed and encased into more concise, frugal shortands. Just as the concepts they describe grow more complex, their nomenclature becomes exceedingly abbreviated. The problem: These minute, if cryptic, abbreviations, while linguistically economical, aren’t quite self-explanatory, are they?
Some of these acronyms we’ve already covered on this blog, others you may or may not be familiar with: AR, LiDAR, HVAC, GIS, BIM, CIM, IoT, AEC, LEED, KPIs, and UAVs. We’ll keep covering them if you keep reading about them!
Now it’s time to learn a new one: NFC.
It may not ring any bells, but this odd little acronym is poised to change everything about how you share information. What’s more, chances are high that you use some version of it in your day-to-day life already.
In fact, with the rise of the Bluetooth Tag in the equipment tracking space, we incorporated NFC in our recently announced, vastly improved Bluetooth Tracking Tag, for example. But what does this mean beyond the cryptic acronym, “NFC,” that furnishes product summaries found in press releases and glossed over in product demos?
In this article, we’ll explain what exactly those three letters are all about (Spoiler: it’s got nothing to do with NFTs), what they’re not about, and lay out a brief history of the technology they describe. Then we’ll discuss the benefits of said technology in the field of construction, and look ahead into the future of NFC.
What Is NFC (Near-Field Communication) Technology?
NFC stands for Near Field Communication, which is a game-changing type of short-range, contactless radio communication technology. This is to say, with NFC, a wide variety of rapid, simple, and secure two-way interactions between localized devices becomes possible. It’s similar to, but distinct from, something like a cellular network, which involves the transmission of data over long distances. Near Field Communication on the other hand is used–you guessed it– to wirelessly share small amounts of data between devices that are in a much closer proximity to one another; we’re talking within a few centimeters here. An important rule to keep in mind: Near Field Communication between two devices can only occur if each device has an NFC Tag–allowing them to use a Magnetic Induction–embedded within it.
Common NFC Uses: What Is Near Field Communication Used For?
As we mentioned above, it’s likely you use NFC every day without even realizing it. Have you ever swiped your ID badge in order to gain entrance to your workplace? That’s an early type of NFC in action–Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), to be precise. Unlike NFC, you’ve probably heard of that last acronym before. We’ll explore the relationships between RFID, NFC, Bluetooth®, and yet another handy acronym (QR) in greater detail in a moment. For now, let’s focus on the ways that other, more recent versions of this technology are already at work in your daily life.
NFC is the tech that’s behind apps like Apple Pay and Google Pay, allowing you to securely purchase items with a digital wallet at the grocery store by simply holding your phone near a contactless reader at the checkout lane. Public transportation systems have also begun using NFC in recent years, enabling riders to pay or verify pass-holder status with a wave of their smart watch or contactless transit card. When embedded with NFC tags, physical objects in retail or warehouse environments can be easily scanned by smart devices and logged into digital databases such as Milwaukee’s very own ONE-KEY tool tracking and inventory management platform. NFC even allows people to share data like music files, contacts, photos, or internet links by simply tapping their devices together.
A Brief History of Near-Field Communication (NFC)
NFC is based on another acronym that we touched on a moment ago: RFID. Patented in 1983, (though its roots can actually be traced all the way back to World War II and the eerie music of the Theremin) the contactless radio capability of RFID laid the groundwork for a new short-range communication technology that wouldn’t arrive for another two decades.
Fast forward to 2002, when Sony and Philips Electronics partnered together to layout the technical outline of an RFID offshoot they dubbed Near Field Communication. Two years later, the two companies created the NFC Forum, a non-profit aimed at integrating NFC into a wider range of consumer devices. Later that same year, Nokia unveiled the world’s first NFC enabled device, an add-on shell for the Nokia 3220 that allowed users to electronically pay for things with a wave of their mobile phone.
Fast forward again to 2010, when Android released its own NFC enabled phone, the Samsung Nexus S, the point from which rippled outward a growing list of smart devices capable of Near Field Communication in the years that followed. Apple lagged behind the pack, only adopting NFC exclusively for its payment app in 2014 with the release of the iPhone 6. The rest, as they say, is history. These days, most of our phones, laptops, and smart devices are NFC enabled.
A Nokia 3220 with an NFC shell being used to process an electronic payment. Source: IT Finanzmagazin
Are NFC and RFID the Same Thing? NFC/RFID Differences Explained
Yes and no. These two technologies are definitely related to each other, and while they do have a lot in common, NFC is a little bit more advanced than RFID. There are enough differences between them to warrant a quick explanation.
Let’s start with the similarities:
- Both RFID and NFC are forms of short-range wireless communication between devices or enabled items. There is also something called Low Frequency RFID. This operates at 125 to 134 kHz. Ever have your pet microchipped? It's using LF RFID inside that chip! That's how the vet gets your lost kitty back to you. Technically speaking, the RFID at 13.56 MHz is actually called High Frequency RFID.
- Both RFID and NFC use designated computer chips to communicate.
- Both use the same radio frequency range–about 13.56 mhz.
Now let’s breakdown the differences:
- RFID acts as a one-way exchange, where data flows from an item embedded with an RFID tag to a device that acts as a scanner. NFC on the other hand facilitates a two-way exchange between objects or devices that act as both scanner and tag, making it possible for data to flow back and forth between them.
- Unlike NFC, which again has a maximum range of about 10 centimeters, some types of RFID tags in the ultra-high frequency range – running at 900 MHz. – can be detected as far as 100 meters from a scanner.
It’s helpful to think of RFID and NFC as sharing DNA but not being the same person. In this metaphor, RFID is a parent who paved the way for the existence of NFC, which in turn is both its own distinct technology and a categorical header that includes RFID. A little tangled perhaps, but hopefully you get the picture.
Are Bluetooth® and QR Codes Forms of NFC?
No. Though it’s understandable why you might think so. After all, each involves short-range transmissions of data from one device to the next. But in fact, Bluetooth, QR (meaning, Quick Response Code), and NFC are all distinct from one another.
Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) are forms of two-way wireless communication technology used to transmit data between devices over short ranges. They are not, however, the same as NFC.
Here are the key differences between Bluetooth and NFC:
- Frequency Range: Bluetooth operates in the ultra-high frequency band of 2.4 GHz. Remember, the frequency range of NFC is 13.56 mhz.
- Operating Range: The difference in radio frequencies isn’t trivial. It’s what accounts for one of the biggest key differences between these two technologies–the range within which they can be operated. NFC’s range of use is tightly limited to only a few centimeters. In other words, the two objects must be almost touching each other in order for an NFC signal to successfully pass between them. Meanwhile, Bluetooth devices like our new line of One-Key Bluetooth Trackers can connect devices that are as far as 300 feet apart from one another.
- Connection: Bluetooth devices have to request and be granted permission to connect. This is a process that requires tapping through pop-up screens and may call for authentication with security pins or passwords. NFC, on the other hand, doesn’t require manual pairing of any kind. As long as the devices are within range of each other, an NFC connection is established automatically.
QR, or Quick Response codes is another separate set of short-range data transfer technology.
Here’s the key difference between QR and NFC:
- Decoding an image: QR codes decode an image using a smart device’s camera to scan barcode-like images that are visible on the surface of objects in the environment. NFC of course utilizes an entirely different form of connection that instead uses high-frequency radio waves to exchange data between devices or objects that have built-in NFC tags which don’t need to be visible in order to operate.
What Are the Benefits of NFC in Construction?
Now that we have a clear idea of what NFC is and what it isn’t, the time has come to ask the obvious question: Why should you care? How is NFC useful to the construction industry?
An easy place to start is with the baseline statement that the world of construction is by necessity becoming more interconnected every day. The Internet of Things (IoT) isn’t just some trendy gimmick that makes it easier for you to control the temperature and lighting of your futuristic apartment. It’s also a powerful tool that enables players in industrial settings to rapidly communicate mission-critical information that might otherwise be lost to the ether. The potential applications of NFC in the world of construction are truly endless, limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of those who use the technology. There are, however, a few low-hanging fruit that any construction professional ought to be aware of when contemplating the adoption of NFC. Here are just a few of the ways that NFC can change the construction game for the better:
You don’t need any cords or even a cellular or internet connection to successfully exchange information via NFC.
Like RFID before it, NFC makes it possible to identify personnel as they enter and exit facilities, allowing for easier monitoring of who is where and whether they’re authorized to be there.
When it comes to rapid peer-to-peer connectivity, nothing beats NFC. Bluetooth is a solid option, but again, it often requires you to manually pair devices by first making sure that Bluetooth is turned on and then tapping through multiple authentication screens to establish a link. Bluetooth is much more useful as an alternative to GPS for tracking tools and other items around the job site. QR codes are similar, requiring you to pull up your phone’s camera (assuming it has a functioning one) and angle it correctly to capture the image. NFC does away with all this, allowing you to automatically connect by simply holding two NFC-enabled devices a few centimeters away from each other.
Nothing is completely immune to a cyber-attack, but the extremely short-range of NFC makes it inherently more secure than most other forms of wireless communication. This is why NFC has been so readily adopted by digital payment apps. Whether for the transfer of eyes-only information or making business-related purchases, NFC is an ideal technology for construction professionals who are protective of their digital assets. NFC effectively limits the 'man in the middle' attack. Since the range is only a few cm, no one can sniff the data that's going back and forth. This is a weakness of all other wireless protocols.
NFC tags are incredibly durable, even in comparison to QR codes, which can wear out or get scuffed into uselessness over time. When housed safely within the shells of heavy-duty smart devices and smart tools, NFC tags can easily withstand the elements and the test of time, outlasting even the most corrosive forms of wear-and-tear that a construction site can throw at them.
Construction sites and warehouse environments are complex places that stand to benefit enormously from the increased connectivity that Near Field Communication has to offer over conventional tracking methods. There’s a lot of expensive tools, equipment, and materials floating around construction sites every day, moving back and forth between storage facilities, work trucks, jobsites, and trading hands from one worker to the next. NFC makes it easier than ever to keep track of all these resources. Any item on a construction site can be embedded with a durable NFC tag that can then be rapidly scanned and easily logged into digital inventory management platforms like One-Key, which can then track the item’s location with Bluetooth.
In fact, our new line of Bluetooth Trackers, designed specifically for items that aren’t compatible with One-Key, comes complete with NFC tags for this precise reason.
Its primary use is in the event of a dead battery or a broken tag. You can still read the NFC and get basic information like battery level and MPBID. What’s more, NFC will work without any power from the battery since it's actually powered from the RF field itself.
Looking Ahead: How Near Field Communication Might Be Used in the Future
At the moment, NFC doesn’t have the household name recognition of other wireless forms of connection like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, QR, or even RFID. But that might be about to change. This technology is already fully integrated and widely used by most contemporary smart devices. What’s more, the economic numbers make it clear that if NFC is going anywhere, it’s up. A recent report by Allied Market Research projects that the NFC market, which generated $3.8 billion in 2020, is expected to grow to $15.58 billion by 2030.
Bottom line: Our world is becoming more and more interconnected, and technologies like NFC are at the forefront of improving and streamlining that connection. As long as there is a demand for the quick, secure, and easy transfer of information from one person or device to the next, NFC and other contactless forms of communication will be there to establish the link.
About the AuthorJohnny Lienau is an electrical engineer with extensive experience and expertise in wireless technology. Previously, he worked at Laird Connectivity, designing everything from smart watches to wireless pacemakers. He also recently has been employed at Harley-Davidson, where he was responsible for rider wireless headsets, updates to their infotainment system for 2018 and 2019 motorcycles, and helped design the H-D Connect platform currently deployed on their electric motorcycle. Currently serving as Principal Engineer for Milwaukee Tool, he works closely with the One-Key team designing compatible devices. More Content By Johnny Lienau
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