NATO Samples New GPS-Based Tags, Expands Active RFID Use

By Claire Swedberg

Nations and partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization can now purchase SCT Technology's active RFID- and GPS-based hardware and software directly from the NATO Support and Procurement Agency, as its use of wireless technologies to track containers, palletized goods and vehicles throughout the supply chain grows.

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U.K.-based asset-tracking solutions company SCT Technology has been granted catalog listing status by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), for use by NATO members and partner nations seeking military shipment and asset-tracking hardware, software and services. The technology includes 433 MHz active RFID, as well as GPS and cellular functionality, to identify the status and locations of assets such as containers, palletized goods and vehicles as they move around the world.

SCT (an acronym for “supply chain tracking”) acquired the international defense division of Savi Technology in 2017, including Savi’s RFID- and GPS-based consignment-management application (CMA). This software platform enables the management of military shipments for NATO member countries and allied nations, says Eric Gill, SCT Technology’s founder and CEO, and formerly Savi’s VP of international operations. The CMA provides users with a centralized platform for asset tracking data across nations.

Eric Gill

NATO has been leveraging active RFID technology for asset tracking since 2004 (see NATO Rolling Out System for Sharing Data and As Part of Lockheed, Savi Spreads RFID Around NATO). Like the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), NATO has been tracking assets via active RFID technology compliant with the ISO 18000-7 protocol, much of which has come from Savi. However, the United States has its own management software known as the ITV server.

For more than a decade, NATO has worked with Savi, then SCT, using common standard agreements (STANAGs) to manage the locations of containers, pallets and vehicles as they are transported from or to NATO or allied nations for use during global missions. The RFID technology has helped the organization to identify containers and other large items as they are read via fixed or handheld readers at some locations by participating nations.

The listing of SCT Technology products in the NSPA catalog means countries can purchase the hardware and software directly from the NSPA at a discounted price, which makes access easier and could further the proliferation of RFID for asset tracking by NATO. Last year, SCT also launched its CMA Interoperability Suite to enable STANAG-compliant communication between NATO, the DoD’s ITV system and other partner nations’ systems.

NATO asset-tracking interoperability is critical, Gill explains, due to the complex nature of the supply chain. “The CMA solution SCT Technology provides serves two purposes,” he states: it enables nations to track their own assets, and to share information for mission-essential equipment being transported from one location to another. For instance, he says, the sharing functionality gives NATO commanders visibility into where goods are located, so they can reroute and reprioritize their movement, when needed, and ensure they end up at their proper destination.

“If they need certain assets earlier than planned” at a specific location, Gill says, “the commander has visibility, through the CMA system, to identify the location of the equipment they need, and can reroute if necessary.” Data sharing becomes even more critical as equipment changes hands from one nation to another, he notes. For example, Gill says, if a nation’s container moves to another country’s shipping site, the data collected from that location (using the other nation’s readers) is automatically shared by CMA.

Due to the complexity of NATO’s supply chain, a container might be loaded with goods that belong to several nations, palletized with active RFID tags attached to the corresponding pallets. As the products are loaded into the container, an RFID reader onsite can enable officers to identify the contents, as well as the nation of origin, and store them with the unique ID number of the container’s tag.

The collected information is routed between partner nations and the NATO system via the NSPA’s routing hub for the RFID-based asset-tracking data. The hub, operated and maintained by NSPA using the CMA platform, is located in Luxembourg and includes assets tracked via electronic data interchange (EDI), as well as RFID-tagged items.

NATO nations, throughout the years, have introduced passive UHF RFID tags on some assets, as well as traditional 433 MHz active RFID tags. Active systems provide several advantages for military operations, Gill notes. For one thing, active RFID tags only transmit in response to a polling reader, which means they can remain in radio-silent status when tagged assets move through a hostile area. In addition, the read range of the active RFID tags (about 100 meters) reduces the need for portal reader infrastructures that would be required for passive systems.

More recently, another tag technology has been tested as well. SCT is offering the Savi IoT (Interrogator or Transponder) Sensor. The sensor—model STR-900—provides GPS data transmitted via cellular GPRS networks. It has a built-in 433 MHz RFID reader and forwards RFID- and GPS-based data to the CMA system. “This mobile sensor offers users the ability to replace fixed reader infrastructure with a device that can read and report, with a GPS location, up to 100 active RFID tags,” Gill states.

In that way, NATO can identify where goods are located between RFID read points, enabling the agency to have real-time location data in the field. The battery-powered tags, like standard active RFID tags, can be latched to a container, serving as a seal and an identifier. CMA can also be used to set up geofences, so that if assets are moved into areas where they are not expected to be, or are outside of the proper route, an alert can be issued to authorized personnel.

In the meantime, Savi active RFID readers can be set up at key locations, such as at receiving warehouses, even on a temporary basis. When a container’s tag is captured via an RFID interrogator, the software automatically identifies that it has arrived at its destination.

The new IoT sensors are being tested by the Canadian and British militaries. While RFID provides location data capture in fixed areas, GPS can expand the view of goods shipped around the world. “The addition of GPS data,” Gill reports, “has allowed us to massively improve the value of asset tracking to our military customers in NATO.”

This year, SCT Technology plans to release a smartphone app that would enable users to provide instant checkpoint reads back to the CMA server, and to access data regarding tagged assets. “In this era of BYOD [bring your own device],” Gill says, “we’ve had a lot of interest and requests for using smartphones” for this purpose.