Four Naval Shipyards Deploying Forklift-Based RFID System

The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences is preparing to deploy UHF RFID readers from Venture Research at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard this spring, followed by three more piers, to manage container location and movement.
Published: February 12, 2019

The U.S. Navy is preparing to leverage the forklifts that travel around its shipyards to enable an RFID- and GPS-based solution to track containers at four U.S. piers. The system will enable the Navy to collect data regarding where loaded or empty containers are located, by reading passive UHF RFID tags on containers via RFID interrogators, in conjunction with GPS, mounted on forklifts moving around the yard.

With the system, provided by the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) using technology from Venture Research, the Navy can more easily view the locations of its goods, as well as better manage the storage and movement of those products accordingly. The installations, slated to begin this spring, will take place at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the Naval Station Pearl Harbor, the Naval Shipyard Portsmouth (in Maine) and the Naval Station Norfolk (in Virginia).

A forklift moves around the yard with an RFID reader attached.

NCMS serves as a consultant and project manager to help the Navy understand and deploy new technologies for the U.S. military effort. It not only helps to select systems, but also orchestrates the deployment and acts as an overseer. NCMS and the Navy have been collaborating on such projects for more than 20 years, says Nicholas Brown, NCMS’s project manager. Those projects have included additive manufacturing, software platform development and strategic process improvement.

In December 2017, the Navy reached out to NCMS for a container-management solution. “The Navy was seeking a solution for locating mobile assets in large areas, including outdoor environments,” Brown recalls. The military agency sought a system that would enable it to identify not only that assets were in a specific port or storage yard, but also their exact location within that yard. Most RFID systems require fixed RFID readers to accomplish location tracking. Instead, NCMS wanted a solution that could provide RFID reads and GPS-based data, linked to those read events, without requiring a fixed infrastructure of readers at each yard.

The Navy’s shipyards contain large quantities of mobile equipment, Brown explains, such as trailers measuring 40 feet in length. “Keeping track of it is a daunting task that the mobile RFID technology can simplify,” he states. “Streamlining their processes frees up resources to perform other functions, thus saving money.”

The Navy has several requirements for any hardware used on its sites. The technology needed to be IP67-rated, and it provided integrated RFID and GPS on a forklift-mounted device, according to John Baker, Venture Research’s president. The military also requires Hazard of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance (HERO) certification—testing that determines whether units meet electromagnetic requirements to ensure safety when operated around ordnance.

The Navy asked for proposals from its network of technology vendors for forklift-tracking devices. “We had multiple participants bid,” Brown says, “with Venture Research winning the award in the spring of 2018.” Development for the installations began last September.

The units that the Navy will use will be a modified version of the company’s MultiTrak reader, which is designed for outdoor RFID and Internet of Things (IoT) monitoring. The device comes with built-in UHF RFID and GPS functionality to identify a unit’s location as its tag is being read. The standard MultiTrak device also has a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radio and a Wi-Fi unit, and offers cellular connectivity. In the case of the Navy deployment, however, the device will omit BLE and Wi-Fi functionality since those features aren’t required for the Navy’s specific application.

With the deployment, each forklift will have a reader mounted on it, with an antenna on each side of the vehicle to capture data from all tags around its perimeter (an installation known as drive-by cycle-count mode.) Venture Research also offers a front-facing version with an RFID antenna mounted on the front to interrogate tags on containers as they are being moved by forklifts. However, Baker notes, “Cycle counting is more suitable for what they want to get done.”

John Baker

As the vehicles move around the yard, the readers will capture the unique ID number encoded on each container or equipment tag, then link that identifier with the forklift’s GPS-based location, thereby pinpointing the asset’s location. Tag location can be pinpointed to within about 15 feet, the firm reports.

The readers come with an application programming interface (API) protocol for software integration. When a reader receives data, it interprets that information and forwards it to the Navy’s own management software, which can manage and share that data. Authorized personnel can then view the locations of particular assets and thereby improve shipyard management.

Meanwhile, Brown says, while Venture Research, the Navy and NCMS are awaiting HERO certification, they have worked out technical details for the solution, including performing site evaluations. Once the first system is in place at the Puget Sound Naval pier, the next installations are expected to be rolled out at a rate of one new site every month. Full deployment at all four sites is expected to be completed around August of this year.

Venture Research has been in business for more than 20 years. Since 2008, Baker says, the firm has been making its own hardware. Based on customer demands, he adds, the company has gravitated toward making specialty readers for challenging environments. It provides its solutions to pharmaceutical, construction and waste-management companies, as well as to those in the aerospace and military sectors.

At the conclusion of this Navy project, Brown says, NCMS plans to work with the military agency to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of Venture Research’s solution. Once validation is completed, the company intends to promote its expansion to other bases, depots, shipyards and warehouses as well. “NCMS will promote the successes of the project,” he states, “as well as future purchases by other military installations, to tout the solution’s usefulness.”