Portuguese pooches to get radio-tagged

A maker of radio frequency identification chips wins a deal to insert the technology in thousands of dogs.

Once a tech industry darling, radio frequency identification tags have officially gone to the dogs.

Actually, RFID remains a hot topic in hardware, software and retail markets, but other applications of the technology, which marries microchips with radio antennas to foster easier tracking of inventory, have taken wing, or at least paw. On Friday, Digital Angel, which sells RFID scanning and communications tools for tracking everything from airplanes to farm animals, announced that it had won a $600,000 deal to start affixing radio tags to dogs in Portugal.

The deal was granted under a government initiative to control rabies in the country. Portuguese legislators have mandated that the estimated 2 million canines in the nation must be implanted with radio tags and registered in a national database by 2007. Digital Angel's deal covers the first phase of the program, in which 200,000 or so animals are to be tagged. The company said it will bid on the rest of the Portuguese business over the next two years.

"We fought like cats and dogs for this business," said Digital Angel Chief Executive Kevin McGrath. "Seriously, though, we think it's a great opportunity to show off how reliable and easy to read our RFID products are."

RFID chips for animals, which are extremely small devices injected via syringe under the creature's skin, are nothing new. The chips are programmed with data pertinent to a given animal, such as its name and owner's address, and can be scanned using a handheld device. In Digital Angel's case, the chip contains a number assigned to the animal, and the other information resides in a separate database.

Other European countries already require that pets have RFID chips or tattoos for quick identification. In the United States, McGrath estimated, RFID technology last year helped return about 6,000 tagged animals to their owners per month.

However, the Digital Angel deal underscores the growth of RFID as a mainstream technology. The company has plans to release a new product next year that not only stores animals' data but also takes their temperature, to help consumers figure out whether an animal might be sick. McGrath says such applications, which could save pet owners and farmers millions of dollars on visits to the vet, will help drive RFID into many new consumer markets.

Over the last year, RFID has gotten a big push forward from the retail sector, where radio tags are being deployed by several major chains, including Wal-Mart Stores and Target, to improve inventory management and related supply chain logistics. But the technology is also finding favor in a number of other venues, such as at Narita Airport in Japan, where passengers' luggage is being tagged to help match items with the specific individuals who check them, to guard against terrorism. Delta Air Lines has announced a similar plan to begin tagging bags.

In another, more controversial application, Japanese officials in the city of Osaka have decided to run a test under which children in one primary school will be tagged with chips to track their movements. Denmark's Legoland theme park introduced a similar scheme this year to help locate young children who have gone astray.

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