June 26, 2017

Happy as a duck in water

Imagine tracking 30,000 rubber ducks used in an unusual fundraising event. RFID tags come to the rescue once again. Read how all the technical challenges were overcome to make the charity event successful.

The Rotary Club of Daniel Island, Charleston, South Carolina, USA, has used RFID tags to solve a huge and growing problem: how to tag 30,000 rubber ducks that citizens sponsor in their annual Duck Race!

The charity event takes place on the Wando River. People pay $10 to “adopt” a duck for the race, and the proceeds help to support local and global community service programs. On race day, the ducks are thrown from the top of a bridge, 150 feet above the river. They then race downstream for about half a mile, until they encounter floating booms that funnel all the ducks into a small, duck-sized exit. After passing this obstacle, the ducks emerge in single file to head for the finish line. The first 11 ducks to cross the line win their “adopters” items donated by local companies, or cash prizes.

More than a handful
Managing 30,000 rubber ducks is no laughing matter. In the early days, each duck had a number written on it by hand, to identify the adopter at the end of the race. So the workload both before and after the race was becoming enormous – it took weeks of work before the race to assign numbers to the adopters, and even more work recording every duck crossing the finish line, as well as inventorying the ducks.

As the numbers of adopters and ducks grew, the Rotary Club found that their low-tech approach was simply taking too much time and effort. So, they tried using barcodes on the ducks, which could be scanned into a computer and assigned to an adopter. This did reduce the amount of work involved, but race preparations were still taking weeks, since every duck had to be scanned manually, both before and after the race. Even worse, some barcodes became separated from their host duck during the race, so the lucky winner could not be identified in such cases. It was time for a new, more high-tech approach.

RFID to the rescue
In 2014, the Rotary Club came to the conclusion that neither handwritten numbers nor barcodes were the answer – the time input required was simply too much. They started looking around for a new system, and discovered RFID tags. Discussions with RFID experts followed, and they started testing different tags to see which would be able to stand up to the punishment delivered by the Wando River on race day.

So many barcodes had fallen off that it was obviously not a good idea to try sticking tags to the outside of the duck: the tag would have to go inside, and the duck be re-sealed to stop it sinking. The Rotary Club made small incisions in the tail of several ducks, inserted various different tags and sealed the hole, to allow them to conduct blind tests with tags from different manufacturers. The clear winner was Smartrac’s ShortDipole RAIN RFID tag, so further trials were conducted to ensure that the tag would function flawlessly on race day.

Riding high with RFID
The Daniel Island Rotary Club has held two annual duck races since they started using RFID, and the results now have been outstanding. They used a human assembly line to insert the tags, and it took just one week instead of several weeks of work to tag every duck taking part and record its ID number for all future races. Inventorying the entire flock of ducks after the race now only takes 30 minutes instead of days. Even though a few ducks inevitably get lost before reaching the finish line, most of the 30,000 make it, and all finishers are tagged, read, and their adopters identified.

Club members are incredibly pleased with how easy and smooth it is to work with RFID-tagged ducks and are planning to use the system for all future races. Rather than weeks of mind-numbing pre-race work, the organizers simply match an adopter’s name to a specific duck’s EPC number on a spreadsheet. The laborious post-race inventory count is similarly streamlined, and is done using plastic barrels in record time.

The Daniel Island Rotary Club raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for charities, much of which comes from their annual Duck Race. The local community is happy to help out on race day to support what is now a high-tech tradition.


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