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Naval Surface Warfare Center Demos RFID Tool-Tracking Solution for Combat Ships

The system uses EPC Gen 2 UHF tags and readers to identify items loaded onboard, in cabinets stored within steel containers, enabling the U.S. Navy to reduce inventory-tracking time from 32 hours to two minutes.
By Claire Swedberg
May 18, 2012The Panama City Division (PCD) of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) has developed and demonstrated an RFID-based cargo-tracking solution that it says is poised to provide a 3,000 percent return on investment by eliminating the need to perform manual inventory checks. NSWC supplies research, development, test and evaluation services for surface-ship systems and subsystems. The solution was designed for a littoral combat ship (LCS), a small surface vessel intended for operations close to shore. By affixing passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to tools stored in metal cabinets within containers loaded onto such vessels, NSWC PCD was able to capture location data regarding those items in real time—even when a vessel was out to sea—using satellite-communications to transmit RFID data.

Smaller than the U.S. Navy's other frigates, littoral combat ships is serve a variety of functions, including moving cargo to and from port facilities. The two LCS vessels currently in use by the Navy are loaded with steel containers containing cabinets used to store a wide variety of tools, such as wrenches and ropes being moved between other vessels and the port. Without an RFID solution, the Navy—in order to ensure that all tools are accounted for—must assign its sailors to conduct manual inventory counts of all items within the containers, either on the vessel or at the port. This can take as much as 32 hours to complete every time it's done, says Ryan Mabry, the NSWC PCD computer engineer who developed the software for the RFID-based solution.

NSWC PCD's Ryan Mabry
It is not easy work, Mabry notes. Sailors often must stand in a tight enclosure (an 8-foot-by-20-foot container), manually checking items on paper. However, he reports, that time was reduced to approximately two minutes using radio frequency identification.

The solution, known as the Mission Package Automated Inventory Information Inventory System (MPAIIS), consists of EPC Gen 2 passive UHF RFID tags attached to items, as well as readers installed within containers, satellite-communications technology to transmit RFID read data to the back-end system—or a Wi-Fi connection, when a vessel is in the port—and custom-built software to manage read data and issue directives to the interrogators to capture RFID reads remotely.

NSWC PCD began looking into an RFID solution in 2008. Testing, research and development of the system extended to June 2011, when an onboard demonstration was conducted. The researchers are now awaiting funding so they can continue the development for additional containers.

The group conducted a series of tests at NSWC's laboratory facility located in Panama City, Fla., reading 50 different types of active, passive or semi-active tags placed in various areas of the cabinets, as well as moving reader antennas around a prototype container in order to achieve maximum coverage. Instead of creating a system that reads tags attached to tools passing through an RFID reader portal as they are loaded into containers, NSWC wanted readers and antennas to provide real-time information, on demand, by being built directly into the containers. The software was designed in-house to read the tags' ID numbers, link that data to specific inventory items and provide a full list of which items were in a specific cabinet within a particular container, as well as which were missing, whenever a vessel left the port destined for another vessel, returned with a different load or had its cargo swapped out.

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