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U.S. Marines' Blount Island Command Attaches Passive Tags to Containers

The facility responsible for maintaining equipment and supplies aboard "maritime prepositioning ships" is deploying long-range Omni-ID EPC Gen 2 tags to expedite the loading and unloading of cargo.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 25, 2010As part of its efforts to improve asset visibility and equipment accountability, the U.S. Marine Corps' Blount Island Command has evaluated passive RFID technology, and is now applying passive RFID tags to the equipment transported on what are known as maritime prepositioning ships (MPS).

Blount Island, located near Jacksonville, Fla., is responsible for maintaining all the equipment and supplies aboard MPS vessels. Currently, the command depends on bar-coded labels and active RFID tags to track all MPS cargo and equipment. In 2009, the command began attaching passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID EPC Gen 2 tags to 20-foot-long steel cargo containers and vehicles.

Omni-ID MaxHD passive RFID tags are being glued to the sides of military vehicles.

The U.S. Military Sealift Command operates 16 ships that are specially configured to strategically position supplies for the Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy. These MPS vessels are loaded with a variety of Marine Corps and Navy equipment and supplies, including tanks, howitzers, trucks, ammunition, food, hospital equipment, petroleum products, supplies and spare parts. The vessels are then strategically positioned throughout the globe, ready for rapid delivery ashore where and when required.

Approximately five MPS vessels pass through Blount Island per year. The loading of each one, known as back-loading, typically takes eight working days. For the past 20 years, the Marine Corps has employed 2-D bar-coded labels on some larger items, such as vehicles and ISO containers, to track their movement from their arrival at the pier through the loading process. In compliance with a 2004 U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) mandate, the Marines have also been utilizing active 433 MHz RFID tags for in-transit visibility. However, says Lyle G. Layher, the head of Blount Island Command's MPS Plans Management Branch, the active RFID solution provided limited tracking capability.

"The DOD-mandated solution [of active RFID tags] is not a good fit for the MPS community's more precise and reliable data demands for asset visibility," he says. The tags' batteries often have died or been damaged by the time troops attempted to read the tags, he explains. In addition, the reading of bar-coded labels is time-consuming and error-prone, due to its reliance on manual scans by military staff members.

On the other hand, passive RFID technology performance has been gaining in read range and reliability. Passive RFID tags are now available that can read reliably at a range of 100 feet, Layher points out. Two years ago, Blount Island Command decided to conduct a test of passive UHF Gen 2 RFID tags in partnership with Alien Technology, which provided ALX-9010 passive reader portals and consulting services, and is overseen by Stanley Associates, the command's on-site support contractor. Blount Island Command established its Systems Integration and Training Facility (SITF) to manage the testing of passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags.

Last year, after testing 30 different passive RFID tags, the command attached the best-performing tag—Omni-ID's MaxHD tag—to cargo containers and vehicles loaded onto one of the MPS vessels, the USNS Maj. Stephen W. Pless. Those tags were read as the USNS Pless was loaded and then tested again in Korea in April 2010, when the ship was offloaded for a military exercise. Blount Island officials brought the readers to Korea to track vehicles as they were off-loaded and re-loaded. Assets tags were read during each phase of the exercise (for example, during off-loading, staging, maintenance and distribution) to their respective operational areas, and for re-loading aboard the Pless.

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