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Vendor to Foxhole Tracking

The U.S. Military's Combat Feeding Program pilot shows that RFID can be used to provide real-time visibility of rations as they move from the manufacturer to units in the field.
By Mark Roberti
Stephen Moody, RFID program coordinator for the Combat Feeding Directorate, coordinated the efforts of several project partners from industry, government and academia. OATSystems, a Watertown, Mass., provider of RFID middleware and applications acted as the systems integrator on the project. Alien Technology, a Morgan Hill, Calif., provider of Class 1 EPC tags and readers, provided the hardware. Also assisting the DOD were Dan Engels, the director of Auto-ID Labs at MIT, and Richard Crutcher of Oak Ridge National Laboratories, a science and technology lab managed for the U.S. Department of Energy by UT-Battelle, a nonprofit company.

Station 3: Goods arrive at the GS Supply Point

The pilot was set up at the Defense Depot San Joaquin, a sprawling facility that is one of two original DLA distribution centers (today there are 22 throughout the United States). Some 105 VIPs and military officials gathered to watch the demonstration. A team of three people from the Combat Feeding Program, four people from OATSystems and one from Alien spent several weeks at the Depot conducting a site survey, setting up equipment and establishing a network. The team spent up to 18 hours a day during the week before the demonstration, ironing out all the kinks, working around interference from existing wireless devices at the depot and ensuring that everything would work properly. They were assisted by the support staff of Col. Edward Visker, the commander of Defense Depot San Joaquin.

The pilot simulated 10 nodes in the DOD supply chain, from the vendor in the United States to the Army unit in the field.

Station 1: This station simulated the manufacturing facility or distribution center of a vendor providing rations for the troops. First, a warehouse manager entered the type of ration manually into Senseware, an RFID middleware application platform developed by OATSystems. Senseware managed the flow of RFID data for the pilot and would typically pass data to backend databases and enterprise systems in a real deployment.

Using a stationary 2.45 GHz Alien reader, the manager entered each pallet into the system by scanning the 2.45 GHz Alien battery-assisted passive (BAP) sensor tag premounted on the pallet’s center block. These tags are called battery-assisted because they do not have a transmitter that broadcasts a signal, as an active tag does. Instead, the battery powers the temperature sensor and the microchip, and data is communicated to the reader by reflecting back a signal from the reader. (The BAP tags have a range of up to 100 feet, compared with 300 feet for active tags.)

Passive 915 MHz Class 1 EPC RFID labels from Alien Technology were affixed to cases of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) and Unitized Group Rations (UGRs), larger meals that can be heated and served to a group. As the cases of MREs or UGRs moved down a conveyor, a stationary reader from Alien wrote a unique EPC number to each RFID tag. Senseware automatically associated each case with a specific pallet in the system. Senseware notified the operator when there were 48 cases on each MRE pallet and 24 on each UGRs pallet. The system then prompted the manager to assign a "check tag" to the pallet. The check tag (also a passive Class 1 EPC tag) is used to verify the integrity of the pallet (if it is present at the arrival point, the pallet is assumed to be intact). The pallet was shrink-wrapped, and then the "check tag" was applied on top of the plastic wrapping.

At this point, the 2.45 GHz stationary reader was used to write the unique EPC for each case, as well as for the check tag, to the BAP pallet tag, and to activate the temperature sensor in the tag, so it would begin recording the temperature at which the rations were stored. The pallets were then picked up by a forklift outfitted with a wireless computer terminal, three 2.45 GHz Alien readers (two for reading pallet tags and one for reading tags on cargo containers), and a set of lights that indicated successful reads to the forklift operator. As soon as a pallet was picked up by the forklift, its BAP tag was read and the pallet and case EPC data were sent to Senseware via the wireless terminal. Senseware then added the cases to a database of the San Joaquin depot's inventory.

Station 2: This is where the pallets were loaded onto a cargo container. The process began with a warehouse manager entering the Transportation Control and Movement Document (TCMD) data—which includes the container contents, required date of delivery, the requisitioned supplies, port of departure and destination—into Senseware (for the pilot this was done manually, but the DOD already enters this information on Savi tags using a docking station that uploads data to the tags). A 2.45 GHz BAP tag was then affixed to the cargo container just above the open doors, and one of the forklift readers was used to commission the container tag—that is, it the reader wrote an EPC to the tag and it was entered into the Senseware system. The RFID-enabled forklift, then picked up two pallets at a time and scanned the tag on each pallet (using a reader mounted on a forklift eliminates the need to have a fixed reader at every dock door). When the forklift successfully read the BAP tags on both pallets, the forklift operator got a green light.

The EPCs for the two pallets were transferred to Senseware via a wireless LAN. As the forklift moved the pallets into the container, the third forklift reader read the container’s tag, and those pallets were associated with that container in Senseware. At this station, six pallets were loaded into an 8-foot by 8-foot by 20-foot ISO container, similar to the ones used to ship goods to remote locations, such as Iraq.

The warehouse manager, sitting at a PC accessing the Senseware data, was shown a list of the pallets that had been loaded and given the opportunity to add or remove pallets if the information was not correct. After verifying that the correct pallets had been associated with that container, the Transportation Control Number used to identify specific containers and the EPCs of the pallets in the container were written to the 2.45 GHz container tag. When all the data was written to the container tag, Senseware removed all of the cases on the pallets associated with the container from the San Joaquin depot's inventory.

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