In access control, the innovation never stops. In the cards themselves and the readers, technology has stepped up to provide the highest levels of security ever.

From standalone, self-contained systems for a single door to large, networked platforms, access control can meet the needs of the smaller customer and the large corporate account as well. In addition, access control is more often than not today tied to computer control, making it more accessible and easy to install and program by the contractor.

Cards and readers continue to evolve to handle more information and a host of new applications and environments. Today, one card can handle multiple technologies, such as proximity and magnetic stripe, Wiegand, barcode and even biometrics.

Built-in Intelligence

In card technology, one of the greatest migrations continues to be the development of smart cards. Identical in size and feel to credit cards, smart cards store information on an integrated microprocessor chip located within the card's body.

Smart cards now in use are contact, contactless and combination. Contact smart cards must be inserted make contact with a smart-card reader. These cards have a contact plate on the face that an electrical connector "reads and writes" to and from the chip when inserted into the reader.

Contactless smart cards have an antenna coil, as well as an embedded chip. The internal antenna allows for communication and power with a receiving antenna at the transaction point to transfer information.

Smart cards can store thousands of times more information than the workhorse magnetic stripe cards. In addition, they can perform multiple functions and are considered more secure because of their ability to add advanced encryption methods and even biometrics. That's not to say magnetic stripe will disappear. Instead, mag stripe will often be coupled with smart cards and other applications as well.

Manufacturers concur that the cutting edge in card technology is the continued shift to smart cards. According to Steve Davis, a regional manager with InfoGraphic Systems in Garden Grove, Calif., smart cards continue to find widespread acceptance.

"Smart-card technology, where the card has a chip inside, can be used for multiple functions such as access control, biometric ID, debit systems, parking, telephones, banks, etc.," he said. "For higher security applications, the combination of a smart card and biometrics, like a fingerprint reader, is also possible. Here, the decision to grant or deny access is done at the reader instead of the system, which gives a faster response. The fingerprint template is stored right on the smart card."

Debra Spitler, vice president of marketing, ASSA ABLOY Identification Technology Group, Irvine, Calif., noted the increased interest in contactless smart card use for physical access control.

Spitler said end-users have grown accustomed to the convenience associated with proximity for physical access control. "As a result, these same end-users expect to experience the same convenience as they implement new applications. For this reason, contactless smart cards offer the best of many worlds," she said.

She has also noticed a great deal of interest in biometric technology, especially for higher levels of security. Using a contactless smart card, an end-user can store the biometric template on the card's smart chip. The result is a cost-effective means to begin using biometric technology when and where appropriate for physical access control.

"In the future, a card will be used by employees for applications beyond physical access control," Spitler said. "Typical applications will include logging on to a PC or network; digital cash, i.e., the purchase of vending machine items and/or food in a campus or company cafeteria; time and attendance logging; and access to networked printers and copy machines, for example."

Another trend in access control is the gradual move to proximity as the technology is refined and prices drop. "We expect a continued shift to proximity for physical access," says Gaetan Sirois, director of operations for Position Technology, Eustache, Montreal.

"Proximity can also be coupled with different types of biometrics for a higher level of security," he said. "There's also a wider range of capabilities in access-control readers, from long-, mid- and short-read range, as well as an increase in outdoor applications and therefore, more weather-resistant units."

Access control is no longer reserved to swipe and read applications only. Proximity, or touchless, capability, along with smart technology, will continue to propel the success of this market segment.

O'MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@flash.net.