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HAMMER Combines RFID, GPS, Mapping, Sensor Technologies

A research project supported by government funding has generated a device with potential use in a range of applications, such as mapping archeological sites.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Apr 20, 2007Several years ago, Tad Britt, an archeologist and senior researcher with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was out in the field fumbling with the many digital tools of his trade—a GPS receiver, a PDA and a digital camera—when an idea occurred to him. "I thought it would be great," he recalls, "if all of these devices could be integrated into one device."

To that end, Britt helped establish a cooperative research and development agreement between the Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center, in Champaign, Ill., and the product engineering firm Compass Systems, based in Lexington Park, Md. Through their efforts, and with the important addition of an RFID component, his kernel of an idea has now reached fruition.

Tad Britt, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, demonstrates the HAMMER.

Britt's first vision was for a device that he could use to track the location of artifacts at archeological digs, which he had traditionally marked with bar-code labels. In addition to a PDA, which would provide memory and computing power, GPS to track the artifacts' location, and a camera to capture their images, the device also needed a bar-code scanner. Over time, however, Britt and Compass Systems project manager David Bjornberg realized they could create a system that would not only track the location of bar-coded artifacts, but also map the archeological sites. They also discovered that networks of sensors and RFID tags could act as eyes and ears to watch over the sites. Therefore, they decided, an RFID reader and sensors with integrated RFID tags would have to fit into the multitool they were creating, as well.

The result of this collaboration is the Hand-held Apparatus for Mobile Mapping and Expedited Reporting (HAMMER). Britt plans to begin using the HAMMER this year to analyze archeological sites on military land near Cape Canaveral, Fla., and on Catalina Island, off the southern California coast. His intention is to install a network of seismic sensors throughout both sites, using the HAMMER to write the geospatial location of each tag to the tag's memory. The HAMMER determines the tags' geospatial coordinates, as well as the location of any other artificial and natural features in the landscape researchers might choose to map, by using a combination of integrated sensors and a laser rangefinder, which reflects a laser beam off a tag or feature and measures its latency.

To create maps of the area, the HAMMER imports this geospatial data into an embedded geographical information system (GIS) software platform from ArcGIS, which runs on the unit's Windows XP operating system. The device can then upload this location data, as well as maps, to the 32 kilobytes of reusable memory on each tag.

The seismic sensors are built to detect any vibrations in the soil and report them to the UHF (915 MHz) active RFID tags to which the sensors are attached. These tags are manufactured by Identec Solutions, a provider of active tags and interrogators that use a proprietary air-interface protocol. An Identec Solutions embeddable RFID reader module is integrated into the HAMMER, as is a reader antenna, which can communicate with an Identec tag from up to 100 meters distant. Using a mobile bar-code printer, Britt can also create ID stickers to affix to artifacts on site, or use the HAMMER's bar-code scanner to read the data from artifacts that have already been marked with bar-code labels. In the future, passive RFID tags could be used to identify artifacts, but this would require that a passive RFID reader be added to the system.

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