How to Build an RFID Reader

Let’s face it, even though there are a wide variety of RFID readers available, there are still implementations where an off-the-shelf system isn’t “close” enough to meet the requirements. So what do you do when your project requires a UHF RFID-enabled device that just doesn’t exist?

You build your own.

How to Build an RFID Reader

The RFID Network produced a 30 minute episode for our cable TV series titled, How to RFID Enable Anything. It includes segments from the below videos as well as additional information. You can watch it here:

The RFID Network TV Series Episode 2: How to RFID-Enable Anything

Read the in-depth article:
How to Build an RFID Reader

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Video Duration: 29:18

Step 1: Choose Your Development Path

The first decision that needs to be made after you've decided to build your own reader, is your development path. More specifically, are you going to build a reader using:

  • Discrete Components or
  • RFID Reader Chip or
  • an RFID Reader Module?

There are a number of critical considerations when making this decision. We've put these considerations into what is one of the most technical videos on The RFID Network website. Ravi Pappu talks about how to build a discrete RFID reader, what it took to design the R1000 UHF RFID reader Integrated Circuit, designing RFID readers modules, and building RFID readers using all of these methods. This video is suggested for engineers - duration: 22 minutes.

How to Build an RFID Reader, Part 1: Discrete reader, IC, or Module?

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Video Index:
01:19 - Considerations before building an RFID reader
03:45 - Building an RFID reader using Discrete Components
10:00 - Building an RFID reader using a Reader Chip (IC)
13:13 - RFID Reader Chip compared to RFID Module
18:00 - Development time for building each option
Duration 22:17. This article has been viewed 108910 times.

Step 2: Select the RFID reader module best suited for your application

If you had to start from scratch, building your own RFID-enabled device would be extremely challenging. For this article, our team decided to use a UHF RFID reader module. There are a number of criteria that needs to be considered when selecting an RFID reader module. Part 2 of our video talks about these considerations in-depth.

How to Build an RFID Reader, Part 2: Module Selection & Reader Assembly

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Some of the considerations include:

  • Module Size
  • RF, Power, and Control Physical Interfaces
  • Number of RF ports
  • Regulatory certification
  • Application Programming Interface

There are at least nine different manufacturers of RFID reader modules designed to make this task a lot easier. Our team selected the embedded RFID reader module family from ThingMagic, named by ABI Research as a leading vendor in both innovation and implementation of their embedded RFID devices. ThingMagic claims you can add RFID capabilities to your product, anything from a handheld scanner for inventory management to a pickup truck for real-time tool tracking or anything else you can imagine, using one of their RFID modules.

ThingMagic Mercury RFID Reader Module familyThe ThingMagic RFID reader modules are EPCglobal UHF Class 1 Gen 2 and ISO 18000-6C compliant products. The M6e offers ISO 18000-6B and
IP-X as options.

These modules are designed to RFID-enable just about anything and pre-configured for regions all over the world, including: FCC (NA, SA) 902-928 MHz, ETSI (EU) 865.6-867.6 MHz, 869.85 MHz, MIC (Korea) 910-914 MHz, SRRC-MII (P.R.China) 920-925 MHz, and ‘Open’ (Customizable) 860-960 MHz.

m6e RFID Reader ModuleMercury6e (M6e) embedded UHF RFID reader is designed to the performance standards of full size readers, but is small and efficient enough to be used in mobile applications. The M6e supports 4 ports and will operate to a level of +31.5 dBm. Serial and USB interfaces are provided to support both board-to-board and board-to-host connectivity.

m5e RFID Reader ModuleMercury 5e is the embedded version of ThingMagic’s best-in-class Mercury 5 RFID reader. About the same size as a PCMCIA Type II PC card, it concentrates Mercury 5’s performance into a tiny package so you can design ThingMagic RFID into your own device. It is ideal for adding UHF RFID read/write capabilities to a wide range of devices, from high speed label printing to inlay testing to mobile and handheld computers.

m5e compact RFID Reader ModuleM5e-Compact is the smallest ThingMagic Mercury RFID embedded reader - about the same size as a compact flash card. It is ideal for adding UHF RFID read/write capabilities to battery-powered mobile printers and hand-held readers, where small size and low power consumption are essential and where the higher RF power and advanced anti-jamming capabilities of the Mercury5e module are not required.

These modules are already embedded into a wide range of form factors and applications, including ThingMagic’s own stationary RFID readers. Moving beyond traditional, one size fits all RFID solutions, that there are several stationary and mobile printers from Zebra Technologies, a printer drawer assembly offered by Lexmark, an ultra-thin portal and a ruggedized reader designed developed by Venture Research, a number of handheld devices offered by several of their customers such as PanMobil’s SCANNDYgun. There is also used a ruggedized tool tracking solution called Tool Link – based on ThingMagic’s Vega reader - which they developed with Ford Motor Company and tool maker DeWALT.

Selecting the appropriate RFID module is such an important topic we have included details in a separate whitepaper titled 10 Criteria for Selecting an RFID Reader Module. Click the button to download the full whitepaper.

Selecting the appropriate RFID reader module just a first, albeit important, step to RFID-enabling your product. You also want to consider things like tag selection, antenna type, and of course application development tools to support rapid prototyping and solution development.

Comparison of RFID Reader modules


Tag Read Rate
Tag Buffer
User-accessible Flash Memory
Tag Read
Antenna Ports

RF Power
Antenna Support
L x W x H
Operating Temp.
Storage Temp.

DC Power

Development Kit Price
Buy Now

Up to 400 tags/second
1000+ tags

16 kB
Over 30 feet (9 m) with 6 dBi antenna (36 dBm EIRP)

5 dBm to 31.5 dBm* (1.4W) with +/-0.5 dBm accuracy above +15 dBm
Up to four monostatic
Four 50 Ohm MMCX connectors

69 mm x 43 mm x 7.5 mm
(2.7 in by 1.7 in by 0.3 in)
-40°C to +60°C
-40°C to +85°C

DC Voltage: 5.0 VDC +/- 5% DC power: 6.5 W @ 31.5 dBm < 4W @ power levels under + 17 dBm
Four 3.3/5V serial input configurable as input (sensor) ports or output (indicator) ports
$1,495 USD
Buy Now

Up to 190 tags/second
200 tags

16 kB
Over 30 feet (9 m) with 6 dBi antenna (36 dBm EIRP)

5 dBm to 30 dBm (1 W),
+/- 1.0 dBm accuracy.
Two monostatic or one bistatic
Two MMCX with VSWR < 1.5:1 @ 50 ohms

82 mm x 54 mm x 5 mm
(3.23 in by 2.13 in by 0.20 in)
-20°C to +60°C
-40°C to +85°C

DC Voltage: 5.0 VDC +/- 4% DC power: 3.5 - 6.5W max when transmitting (depends on RF level)
Two 3.3/5V serial input (sensor) ports and 2 output (indicator) ports
$1,495 USD
Buy Now

Up to 190 tags/second
200 tags

16 kB
Over 13 feet (4 m) with 6 dBiL antenna (29 dBm EIRP)

10 dBm to 23 dBm (200mW),
+/- 1.0 dBm accuracy.
One monostatic
One MMCX with VSWR < 1.5:1 @ 50 ohms

56 mm x 36 mm x 5 mm
(2.2 in by 1.4 in by 0.2 in)
-20°C to +60°C
-40°C to +85°C

DC Voltage: 3.0 to 5.5 VDC DC Power: 2.6 W max
Two 3.3/5V serial input sensor ports and 2 output indicator ports provided
$1,495 USD

Step 3: RFID Tag Selection

How do you go about selecting the right tag (or tags) for your project? On a high level you need to, at least, ask the following questions:

  • What kind of assets are you trying to track? Paper, plastic, metal, liquids or some combination?
  • How/Where are the tags going to be mounted?
  • How are the assets moving? Conveyor, truck, pallet, fork lift? This is important in, not only determining the orientation of the tag, but what type of antenna your readers will require.
  • What does the project require in terms of tracking time (constant or periodic)?
  • What type of environment are the assets in? Is it a high metal content area such as a data center or warehouse? Or does the asset have to endure harsh environs going from dry to wet, cold to hot, etc?
  • Is it a closed or open-looped system?
  • Budget. How much is the customer willing to invest?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be asked to determine if you are going to use passive UHF labels or special metal mount tags vs. semi-passive, active or active WiFi. Many projects will be fine with some, or various, versions of passive UHF tags.

Related Articles:

Step 4: RFID Antenna Type

Another key system design decision is the type of antenna you will use with your RFID reader. Although there are many antenna types, they can be grouped into two main categories, circular and linear, referring to the polarization of the signal emitted.

The two antenna types have different advantages. A circular antenna reads from a much wider angle and a shorter distance than a linear antenna, and it can read tags in different orientations. A linear antenna can have better read performance and accuracy when the tag orientation is controllable. When designing your RFID system, it is important to identify the following design criteria:

  • How far will your reader be from the tags it is reading?
  • How well can you control the orientation and position of the tags?
  • How wide (or tall) is area over which you need to have read coverage?

For tighter control of the read-zone, or to read tags that may be on or near water / metal, a near field antenna may be a better solution than a far field antenna.

Step 5: Select, or build, an enclosure for your RFID module components and antennas

What should you consider when shopping for equipment enclosures? Here are several questions to ask:

  • What are the physical installation requirements?
  • Can the enclosure hold the equipment in the position needed for optimal performance?
  • Are there security requirements?
  • What is the cost?

We have written an in-depth article with accompanying video that may be helpful in this step: The Importance of RFID Equipment Enclosures

Step 6: Application Development Tools

Ok, let’s do a quick recap. You’ve evaluated your project and determined that the project will use UHF readers. You’ve also determined what type of UHF tag to utilize and, subsequently, the most likely best choice of antennas needed for the reader. Using one of ThingMagic’s RFID modules you are now ready to RFID enabled your product and go! Or are you?

Not quite yet. There’s just one problem. How do you actually connect your antenna cables and other IO devices and get your product to write to and read tags? Well, let’s not forget the software and IO hardware components. Or, more specifically, an entire set of application and hardware development tools. You can build or buy these hardware and software components yourself or utilize one of ThingMagic’s RFID developer kits.

Getting Started: What Can You UHF RFID-Enable?

Using RFID modules and complimentary products you can RFID enable just about anything and for all kinds of applications. Sure, you can RFID enable a refrigerator for inventory and cold chain management or even a pick-up truck for tracking tools and other materials on a construction site. But consider some of the other potential applications such as:

  • Personnel Identification
  • Retail inventory management
  • Document tracking
  • Garment tracking
  • Sports timing
  • Vehicle tracking
  • Supply chain management and
  • IT asset tracking

If you’d like to build your own RFID enabled solution, no matter what it is, here’s how to get started:

  • First, download our free whitepaper on selecting the appropriate module for your application;
  • If you have questions, contact ThingMagic for help at
  • Have a great idea, then click on the button to the right and Take the ThingMagic Challenge by getting a development kit and sending us a short video of your own RFID enabled solution. The best videos will be featured in an upcoming episode of The RFID Network.

ThingMagic Product Reviews and Awards

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Best RFID Passive UHF Reader, Module:
Mercury embedded RFID reader module family

About ThingMagic

ThingMagicTrimble’s ThingMagic Division is a leading provider of UHF RFID reader engines, development platforms and design services for a wide range of applications. ThingMagic develops products for demanding high-volume applications and provides consulting and design services to create solutions for challenging applications. ThingMagic's customers include some of the world's largest industrial automation firms, manufacturers, automotive companies, retailers, and consumer companies. Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ThingMagic was founded in 2000 by a group of visionary PhD graduates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. ThingMagic is "The Engine in RFID™". Read more about ThingMagic in The RFID & Sensor Supplier Directory.

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+1 #1 JT 2012-04-18 00:07
Great videos, thanks! I am looking into designing a UHF reader using an ASIC and haven't found anything besides the austria microsystems chips. Are there any others I should be looking at?

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