RFID On The Go
TO HELP EASE convoy management and security during military operations, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has teamed up with Savi Technology, Sunnyvale, Calif., and other private partners to develop a portable RFID and barcode monitoring system housed in a self-contained carrying case about the size of a suitcase.
Already field tested by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, the satellite- and GPS-capable portable hardware system is known as the Portable Deployment Kit (PDK). Now out of test mode, the portable system is under deployment by all four branches of the U.S. military, says David Stephens, Savi public sector senior vice president.
The PDK consists of a laptop PC with management software, a handheld mobile reader and a portable printer, he says. The system can also be plugged into the powered slave cable of a military vehicle in the field, thereby eliminating the need for a laptop battery and reducing the weight of the portable system. The PDK is small and compact enough to fit on top of the hood of a tactical vehicle such as a Hum-Vee.
Essentially, the pint-sized product avoids the requirement for a fixed technology infrastructure, says Lt. Col. Beth Rowley, product manager in the Defense Department’s Joint Automatic Identification (PM-J-AIT) office.
Soldiers in transit no longer need to find their way to U.S. military facilities — often located in unfamiliar and potentially hazardous terrain — to plug in to a local area network (LAN). Instead, the computer technology they need is at hand in the PDK.
Moreover, for troops engaged in fighting war, there is no fixed reader infrastructure for RFID within the area of operations, or “last tactical mile,” making mobile RFID capabilities like those included in the PDK essential.
The PDK’s GPS capability provides soldiers with almost immediate information on latitude and longitude. “Through GPS, the PDK knows exactly where it is,” Stephens says. Active RFID can then be used to determine the identities and locations of tagged objects around the PDK.
Right now, the Army and Marines are both teaching soldiers about use of the PDK in their transportation schools, Stephens says. In addition, the Marines Corps Systems Command has purchased 100 units of the PDK for deployment in Southwest Asia. The Marines are implementing the PDK’s active RFID capabilities for cargo container management, DoD spokespeople say.
By using the built-in satellite communications to connect to the DoD’s In-Transit Visibility (ITV) network, the world’s largest active RFID cargo tracking system, soldiers can quickly determine which cargo is in each container, thereby easing the process of getting the right supplies — such as vehicle parts, bullets, military clothing or food supplies — to the right soldiers.
Also developed with assistance from Savi, the ITV extends across 1,500 locations around the world.
Meanwhile, the Army is also deploying the PDK among field forces, who are using it to manage and order supplies directly from the field, Rowley says.
The PDK provides a “mobile chokepoint,” according to the lieutenant colonel. Benefits include better control over convoy movements, materials and supply distribution, she says. “Soldiers can check, too, to make sure that supply shipments are on schedule,” Rowley notes.
Air Force units, on the other hand, find they are able to easily carry the PDK along with them on a plane, Stephens says. After debarking from the plane with the PDK in tow, the military flight crew can then quickly set up the system at the edge of the airfield, he adds.
Aside from RFID, GPS and satellite communications, the PDK also supports other Automatic Identification and Data Collection (AIDC) technologies, including barcodes and 2D barcodes.
The laptop in the kit comes with a docking station for the handheld reader. When detached, the reader can also communicate wirelessly with the PC, Stephens says.
The Zebra printer in the PDK can be implemented to print out shipping manifests and RFID and barcode labels in the field — a capability that might come into play for unit move changes in wartime, for example.
The PDK project first got off the ground last year as part of the DoD’s RFID II initiative. The PM-J-AIT, a federal agency that oversees RFID procurement contracts for the DoD, also operates the RF-ITV system.
But along the way, the product has evolved continuously to meet the soldiers’ needs. For instance, during the field tests in Iraq and Kuwait, soldiers saw a requirement to change the location of the USB port on the PDK’s laptop.
“They wanted to be able to get to the port more easily,” Rowley says. Savi responded to that request rapidly, she adds.
In another quick enhancement driven by soldiers’ feedback, Savi has improved the original communications interface in its Savi SmartChain Site Manager Software to provide more simplified connectivity and registration with the ITV over the Iridium satellite network.
As a result, soldiers no longer need to spend time on potentially tricky manual configurations of GPS and satellite settings.
“Satellite communications can be somewhat fickle, especially out in the field,” Stephens adds. “We did a lot of work on the (software) front end, installing a ‘dashboard’ for soldiers that is easy to read and easy to follow. This is a standard part of the product now,” he says.
But improvements to the PDK keep right on rolling. “Now, we are redoing other user interface screens to make it easier to perform additional functions,” Stephens says.
Soldiers will soon be able to produce a manifest or a container inventory, for example, at the press of a button. Additionally, Stephens also foresees a number of other possible uses for the PDK outside of the military, in businesses — such as emergency management and oil exploration — where workers in remote locations need to perform near real-time tracking and management of supplies.