What Chip is that?


Recently I was approached by a race director who was claiming the advantages of a competitors timing system.  She was convinced that they had a better system because a claim is that their product is used for timing Formula 1.  I had to laugh.  I'm not sure whether the salesperson was being dishonest, disingenuous, or just naive, but it's not possible to use the same system used for road races to time a formula 1 event.  The problem is now the race director believes it and despite being given the facts, is now leaning that direction.  I have seen a lot of claims over the years and a lot of half-truths and flat out misrepresentation of vendor products.  The fact of the matter is that in this particular case, it is an apples and oranges comparison.  The product used for timing Formula 1 is an entirely different set of hardware and timing chips.  It is not physically possible for a cheap disposable timing chip used in road races to capture the time of a performance car moving at 200 miles an hour.

This led me to think about the different chip technologies that are out there and a need to write a little about it and hopefully help educate you.  I have written about this before but in a different context.  What I would like to talk about is the different kinds of chips and readers that you will see at road races.  They each have their strengths and weaknesses.  There is no perfect solution that is foolproof regardless of what someone might tell you but technology does keep improving.

There are basically two kinds of timing chips in use.  One is called active RFID and the other is passive RFID.  Active RFID is the kind of chip used to time car races and other high speed events.  The timing chip contains a battery and the chip itself is constantly seeking out a reader to communicate with.  The readers used are designed to work with these chips to very quickly communicate to capture the time.  They are very reliable and almost foolproof because of the technology deployed.  The chips are very expensive though and not practical for road races.  Chip cost can range from $50 and up depending on the particular vendor.  No timer in their right mind would want to use those chips for road races as the cost outweighs the benefit.

The other type of chip used and seen in road races and most cycling events is passive RFID.  Some cycling uses active RFID but only for the high end events.  For road races, passive technology is fine.  The original passive technology was a chip that was worn on the shoe.   There were a few vendors that provided this technology and it is still in use today.  It requires a ground mat that the runner crosses.  The technology is mostly accurate but it suffers from a lower read density (runners at the same time), and a lower distance read.  The signal from the mat to the chip is just a few feet.  Outside of that distance, the chip will not be seen.  Most of the time it works fine, but because the distance is not great, the chip can fail to be read because it doesn’t have enough time to be charged and communicate with the mat before the runner passes.  It is why you see multiple mats in front of a finish line.  It’s a redundancy in case one of the mats misses the read.

When companies started looking at disposable chips for use in warehousing, enterprising folks decided to try and make it work for road races as well.  The initial attempts were somewhat successful but not as reliable.  The technology has improved greatly since then.  Disposable chips work much the same way in that they sense the radio waves to charge the processor and then communicate with the reader.  The advantage of course is that the chip is disposable.  There are two types of disposable chips being used today.  One is much like the reusable shoe chip, but is instead a disposable chip worn on the shoe.  The readers can be the same and work fairly well.  The chips suffer the same problem as before but can be solved with multiple mats. 

The other type is worn on a bib.  This is a great advantage for the race director and participant alike but introduces a new set of problems for the timer.  Timers using disposable chips with the mat based readers now have an issue with decreased read rates because the power needed to activate the chip is lower to the ground.  In order to compensate companies either have timers put two chips on their bib or have a much bigger chip on the bib.  Both solutions are problematic though because they still suffer a lower read rate and usually require multiple mats to ensure good reads.

A newer technology uses RFID antennas much like you see at toll booths.  This technology is faster, has higher read rates, and the chips can be read further out.  It allows for much faster reads for events such as cycling and other high speed events.  The disadvantage to this technology though is that antennas must be mounted on a solid rigid structure and care must be taken not to read beyond the area due to the higher power.  Timers who use this technology learn over time how to compensate for these issues so as to get very accurate times.

Athlete Guild has available several different kinds of chips that are used based on the type of race.  There is no one solution that works for every type of event.  A chip that works well for road races is not necessarily the best for cycling or for triathlon.  We work hand in hand with the race director to discuss their needs and the most appropriate setup for success.  Give us a call and we can help you too.