RFID thrives in competitive setting

A third-generation contract for identification technologies is designed to spark further advancements in an already mature technology

The Defense Department has used active radio frequency identification to track military shipments since the early 1990s. Although RFID is a mature technology, a recent contract award shows that the technology is still being refined and improved.

RFID III was awarded in December 2008 and opens DOD-active RFID business to competition for the first time. Savi Technologies, a unit of Lockheed Martin, was the sole provider on the two previous contracts. Three other companies, Northrop Grumman Information Technology, Unisys and Systems and Processes Engineering, can now compete against Savi for the potential $430 million worth of business throughout the course of the 10-year contract.

That’s important for several reasons. The competition should lead to substantially lower prices for active RFID tags, and the technology's price tag has been a drag on broader use. It will also increase access to more commercial active RFID technologies, an important channel of innovation for DOD because the commercial sector has leapfrogged the military in its application of the technology during the past few years.

RFID III also moves away from the U.S.-only American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards for transmitting information from active RFID tags to readers to one based on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 18000.7 standard.

That move will help broaden interoperability of active RFID systems, within DOD and the federal government and with coalition forces, according to defense experts. The new contract anticipates greater interoperability by allowing U.S. government agencies, coalition partners and foreign military sales customers to use it for their active RFID procurements.

With that progress in mind, Lt. Col. Pat Burden, product manager for Joint-Automatic Identification Technology at the Army Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems, called RFID III a significant milestone for DOD. J-AIT also managed the two previous RFID contracts.

Road to success

DOD laid out a road map early last year for meeting the 2007 Automatic Identification Technology Concept of Operations (Conops) for Supply and Distribution Operations, which essentially is the military’s master plan for its logistics and distribution activities from 2010 to 2015.

The RFID component of the Conops is mainly a blend of passive and license plate active tags that will be the bulk of the identifiers used throughout the military supply chain.

Passive RFID tag readers can detect passive tags, which cost pennies apiece, from distances as far as 30 feet and are useful for tracking low-cost commodity goods and warehouse pallets. Active tag readers can detect active tags, which have their own batteries and rewritable memory and radio antennas, from as far as 300 feet and tend to accompany more expensive assets.

License plate tags are the simplest kinds of active tags. They carry information that can identify any given container, but that information has to be married with other details in a central database for anyone to find out what the container is carrying. For that reason, they are considered more secure than other data-rich active tags that carry a container’s manifest in memory.

Lowering costs is a major factor in moving active RFID into the mainstream to meet the Conops requirements, said Dave Dias, chief of the asset visibility branch at Transportation Command (Transcom), which is DOD’s lead proponent for RFID and related AIT.

“We’ve already brought the [average] tag price down from $75 to $52,” he said. “It’s one of the things we absolutely need to do.”

However, there will be a role for the more sophisticated tags in tracking information other than the location of assets, which RFID III also reflects. In addition to license plate tags, vendors on the contract will also need to support tags that can track light, temperature, humidity, shock and attempts to tamper with a container.

Industry and other government agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department, are already using those kinds of tags to track things such as hazardous cargo at sea. The military could use them to track the location and security of items such as munitions or the condition of sensitive materials such as medical supplies.

“There’s a recognition in the contract that the technology can be put in place to track container security rather than just its location,” said David Shannon, Savi’s senior vice president of marketing, strategy and program office management. “That goes along with the notion that some cargo needs more precise condition monitoring.”

The tags are also becoming more capable in other ways, linking RFID technology to technologies such as satellite communications and Global Positioning System devices to provide real-time location tracking of shipments. Satellite tracking has already been tried with some success in Afghanistan and other remote and hostile locations where networked RFID readers don’t exist.

The future of RFID

Future active RFID tags will include hybrid technologies such as satellite and GPS as a native capabilities. For example, Savi and Numerex, a networked systems provider, have already introduced the ST-694 GlobalTag, which includes satellite and GPS technologies along with a sensor that can tell the tag when to automatically switch to using satellite communications when regular readers are not available.

Opportunities abound for such hybrid solutions that provide comprehensive asset tracking and full life cycle management, Shannon said.

Broader applications for active RFID are also being considered. For example, active RFID tags could inventory passive RFID tags on supplies in a container. Such a self-contained inventory system would allow the containers to be used as mobile warehouses, instead of needing to unload supplies to a warehouse before distributing them.

However, despite the competition, innovation and lower prices that RFID III is expected to deliver, cost could still be a barrier to greater demand for more capable tags.

Even though there’s a robust, worldwide DOD active RFID infrastructure in place, military units that decide to use active RFID still must pay for the tags and integration with back-end systems so they can use the data the tags produce. And they have to find ways to fund all of that themselves.

In an environment in which budget constraints look likely to only worsen, that could be a tough call.

The ISO standard in the RFID III contract will mean there will be more choices of tags and readers and other products, and the competition it introduces will substantially reduce the price of the tags, said Gary Clement, director of AIT at General Dynamics IT.

“And because of that, I’m sure some end units will decide they can now afford it,” he said. “But I still doubt that most units will use [active RFID] because they’ll figure they can use their dollars for more pressing needs.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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