Big Brother Is Integrated

They do not contain what they promise. Faked drugs are sold by ruthless racketeers especially in developing countries: malaria pills, antibiotics, serums – made of potato flour, dirty water or toxic solvents. However, also in industrial countries pharmaceutical criminality is increasing. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) could help to protect drugs against fakes.

RFID or Smart Labels save data on a chip. The chip communicates wirelessly via a small antenna with a reader. The data can be read without touching.

“In contrast to barcodes, RFID labels have the advantage of alterable data”, Georg Menges explains who was in charge of the research project “Smart Pack” targeting the development of intelligent packaging. “RFID chips are able to record every single step in a transport chain.” Hereby, the logistic chain is completely documentable which makes drug cheat more difficult.

Despite these advantages drugs have not been tagged with RFID labels so far, mainly because of the relatively high manufacturing and installation costs. Menges and his colleagues created a cheap and intelligent drug packaging by directly integrating passive RFID labels into the packaging material. While active labels contain a battery, passive labels have no internal power supply. The incoming radio frequency signal provides just enough power for them.

The researchers produced blisters which is a synthetic packaging for pills containing Smart Labels welded in plastic packaging. The clou of this prototype packaging: the aluminium foil on the back of the blister is used for receiving and transmitting radio frequency signals which reduces the costs. In tests, the sample packages stacked on each other could also be read without any problems up to a distance of 2.5 metres.

“We also succeeded in developing passive heat and humidity detectors which were integrated in the packaging as well”, Menges describes. The detectors allow quick and smooth quality checks. If the cold chain is interrupted or the packaging leaks, the sensors will notify. “The probes are ordinary but effective. They signalise if a certain threshold value is exceeded but do not scale the exact temperature or humidity”, Menges explains.

Nevertheless Amsterdam University scientists have recently shown, that RFID technology also contains risks. Their experiments proved that the radio frequency signals could affect essential medical equipment in an intensive care unit. Although the experiments were carried out under special circumstances, which does not exist in reality, they demonstrated that the application of RFID has to be examined carefully in order to avoid a hardware breakdown.

Sonja Endres