Battle-tested tech: supply chain and logistics

The military uses RFID to keep tabs on a mountain of wartime supplies

From managing goods to providing medical care, extreme conditions and uncertainties set the military apart from commercial endeavors. It is one thing to manage supply-chain logistics or to provide medical care at a stationary facility; it is quite another thing to do that when the delivery point is unknown and the receiving unit is constantly on the move or under enemy fire.

"At some point, all the nodes are moving all over the place. That's where it's most important to have accountability and visibility," says Gary Motsek, Deputy G-3 for Support Operations, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3), Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va.

Maintaining a visible end-to-end distribution system has become critical to U.S. military efforts. Last fall, General Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, ordered "all air pallets, containers, and commercial sustainment moving to/from theater and intratheater movement to be tagged with RFID [radio frequency identification] at origin." This meant the military would now be engaged in just-in-time logistics. That was a big change from the first Gulf War, where each branch effectively employed "just-in-case" ordering that left iron mountains of duplicate and discarded goods behind after the fighting was done.

Tag, you're it

Using RFID tags, wireless readers called interrogators, and a web-based tracking system eased battlefield logistics by allowing soldiers to identify goods from perishables to munitions quickly and precisely. The RFID system that supported the new Total Asset Visibility mandate was provided by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Savi Technology.

Under the system, data identifying goods is burned to RFID tags that can hold up to 128k of data. These plastic tags are placed on the closed pallet or container or even on individual items, including munitions. Troops hit the field with kits that include tag interrogators which wirelessly collect tag data, upload it to a laptop, and send it on to a Web-based system.

Innovative U.S. soldiers in Iraq rethought tag use, says Motsek. "Some soldiers reburned the tag in order to track their vehicles."

Mostak says in the future, suppliers may need to build RFID technology into vehicles directly. "If I were king for a day, my ultimate goal would be for all items to have a tag -- rather than just on the pallet -- and [for] our commercial suppliers [to] be on board."

The retail industry is beginning to explore RFID. "Gillette will tag high-end razors to identify [market] shrinkage and the root cause of shrinkage," says Gerald McNerney, senior analyst Supply Chain Service, AMR Research in Boston. McNerney says RFID is already being used at ports and for homeland security. "You can use RFID tags to find evidence of tampering."

Mobile medical records

When the call for deployment came to the 325th Airborne Regiment at Fort Bragg, Major Timothy Rapp was working on a research project testing, in essence, a digital dog tag. Rapp, chief of the information technology engineering division of the Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Md., had issued each soldier in the unit digitized medical records in a card about the size of the traditional metal tag.

The Fort Bragg brigade commander ordered all his troops deployed to Iraq outfitted with this PIC (personal information carrier). Rapp and his team provided each soldier with individual digitized medical records stored on a hardware-independent, secure digital flash memory card with up to 128 megabytes of memory. "There is such a large capacity in this. A soldier's 20-year medical record takes up only 4.2 [megabytes] to 5.2 megabytes," says Rapp. Brigade medics were provided with handhelds to read and write to the memory card.

In the future, Rapp wants to adjust the technology to better fit the medic's field needs. He believes TATRC is two to three years out from achieving additional technical milestones such as the use of voice recognition to pick up the medic's oral notes. Natural language processing would structure the medic's text and send it to a database with a wireless connection.

Removing the chain's weakest link

Military demands, like business demands, change on the fly. One weak link in the logistics chain can take down a whole operation. That's why it is important to implement technology that can quickly identify potential readiness problems.

During the Iraq conflict, the U.S. Army Reserves Support Command (RSC) deployed CMM (Cognos Metrics Manager) to monitor, analyze, and report up-to-date status and effectiveness of military personnel, equipment, and operations. Built on a business intelligence model, CMM is a suite of products designed to track and understand performance and business processes.

The Army RSC incorporated CMM’s logistics to oversee everything from the distribution of ammunition, operation of electric power and telecommunications infrastructure, and even rail repair, says Terence Atkinson, director of Public Sector Marketing at Ottawa, Ontario-based Cognos.

CMM's asset management capabilities allow the department to oversee inventory -- such as tanks, personnel carriers, trucks, jeeps, and Humvees -- and assess each item’s serviceability. CMM is also being used by the U.S. Navy to determine readiness for the fleet’s 4000-plus aircraft. In the commercial realm, CMM might be used to track the readiness of a fleet of vehicles -- airlines, trucking, shipping, and car rental -- or personnel readiness and training, Atkinson says.

-- Brian Fonseca contributed to this article.

(View other stories from our special report on Battle-tested Tech, including reports on communications, security and data mining, and robotics and automation.)

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