Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant Adopts RuBee RFID to Track Tools, Chemicals

By Claire Swedberg

The plant is also using the technology for tracking weapons in its armory, while beginning to install it at its health-care center.


After five years of testing auto-ID technology solutions, including various RFID, infrared, acoustic and optical tracking systems, nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly company B & W Pantex has selected a RuBee low-frequency RFID system to capture data about the use of tools and chemicals in its Amarillo, Texas, facility known as the Pantex Plant. Pantex provides its highly sensitive services for the U.S. Department of Energy‘s National Nuclear Security Administration. The system that has been piloted for the past five years is provided by Visible Assets.

Visible Assets developed the active tags and readers, as well as the RuBee air-interface protocol (complying with the IEEE 1902.1 standard) that they employ to communicate with each other. The system is designed for environments in which data must be transmitted around metal and liquids, and also must be highly secured against eavesdropping or other security threats.

The weapons facility’s five years of testing, known as the Advanced Inventory and Materials Management (AIMM) pilot, focused on finding a safe and effective technology for tracking of tools and chemicals as they are used for the assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons. The plant has also been using Visible Assets’ technology to identify and manage firearms that security guards check out and return to the plant’s armories. The RuBee system is also being installed for tracking patients in the facility’s health-care center where security guards can be examined and treated to ensure they are in optimal health before they are permitted to use firearms.

Visible Assets’ RuBee technology transmits a 132 kHz low-frequency signal, which, like 124 kHz LF and 13.56 MHz high-frequency (HF) RFID technology, relies mostly on the magnetic portion of an electromagnetic wave, rather than the electronic component. The advantage to using RuBee technology is it operates in environments where UHF technology has traditionally struggled, including in heavy metal areas. While it is more reliable around metal and has a read range up to 100 feet, it can have a slower read rate than higher frequency RFID solutions, says Visible Assets’ CEO, John Stevens. However the greatest concern for Pantex and similar customers of the technology is security. While HF or UHF RFID or Wi-Fi transmissions could theoretically be vulnerable to eavesdroppers, even if encrypted, the RuBee transmission will not leak out of a building because of its very low frequency, and therefore could not be intercepted by third parties.

“The RuBee signal is magnetic and drops off quickly into deep space noise,” Stevens says. The same can be said of other LF tags as well as, in some cases, 13.56 MHz tags. A tag’s read range can be controlled with Visible Assets’ Dynamic Range Management (DRM) software, ensuring the read range is no longer than necessary (one inch to 50 feet) to manage and minimize eavesdropping and target risks. In addition, the system’s Zero Field Detection (ZFD) protocol keeps the tag from being detected by an enemy outside of the home facility because the tag no longer senses a “ping”—a coded word transmitted by an interrogator. Therefore, it fails to respond to any interrogator until it again detects the appropriate ping or series of pings. RuBee transmission produces about 40 nanowatts of RF power; which is significantly less, says Steven, than that emitted by an HF 13.56 MHz or EPC Gen 2’s ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) 915 MHz reader.

Without the RuBee-based automated system, Pantex had been managing its chemicals and tools manually and with bar codes, which can be time consumer as well as pose a risk of errors. The company needed a system that would acquire data about the movement of materials automatically and store that data as well as send alerts with software integrated with the company’s Oracle based system.

In 2008 Pantex began evaluating multiple technologies to determine whether data could be captured in environments with large quantities of metal and liquids, with tests conducted at the University of Kansas RF test lab and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Only Visible Assets system, Stevens says, met all of Pantex’s various performance requirements, including security and intrinsic safety (use of electronic equipment around explosive material). In 2009 the plant tested the RuBee system with legacy tools that had been retired from use by the plant to determine the effectiveness of data captures as the tools arrived and departed from three different temporary test locations where RuBee Smart Shelf, SmartMat and loop antennas were installed by Pantex.

From 2010 to 2011 the company began testing the RuBee system in a real-world environment within its high-security areas by tagging tools and chemicals, and evaluating the ability to track them around the plant. Pantex evaluated the system as it tracked chemicals through 10 different cycles as they moved from the testing area through approval for use. About 15 tools were tracked similarly—through cycles that represent typical movement of the items—using loop antennas. In some cases, tags were applied to tools as well as the boxes they were contained in to ensure the technology would track the linkage of the proper box and proper tool when the tag IDs for both were married in the software. Reads for both chemical ID tags and tools tags were managed by RuBee Asset 20/20 Oracle-based software, residing on Pantex’s back-end system.

Pantex has already been using Visible Assets’ RuBee weapons tracking system in all its armories for “many months,” Steven says. The exact number of armories and weapons within those armories cannot be named, says Stevens. Although Stevens declined to describe the specific deployment at Pantex, he says that the system installed there is similar to the installations Visible Assets provides in multiple other locations, including those run by the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and special forces in the Middle East. Visible Assets provides a three-layer approach to protecting weapons as well as assets for armories, using reader portals in doorways and a weapon rack reader system. One layer is managing the storage of weapons, the second layer manages the hand-off of a weapon to an officer, and the third oversees the movement of weapons and people through the exit.

For the racks, Visible Assets has partnered with Canadian weapons storage racks maker DDS to embed readers in the racks on which weapons are typically stored. The readers receive transmission from the active tags on the weapons that are stored in the racks. As readers captured the unique ID being transmitted by the tag, that identifier is sent to the Visible Assets Armory 20/20 software running on back-end system via a cabled connection. If the weapon is removed from the rack, the reader ceases to receive transmission from that tag and a status update is sent to the Visible Assets 20/20 software, which determines that the weapon has been removed from the shelf. The weapon is then handed to the appropriate officer at the armory counter, where a reader is also installed. The reader captures the unique identifier of the officer’s Visible Assets badge as well as on the weapons tag and the data is linked together in the software. When the officer then walks through the armory exit, a RuBee portal captures the unique ID of the weapon tag as well as the ID of the individual’s badge, again, indicating the weapon has been removed. In this way he does not need to fill out forms to check the weapon out of the armory.

Pantex is also in the process of installing the system at its medical center, where officers are treated for any health-related concerns as well as examined periodically to ensure their good physical condition. RuBee readers will be installed in multiple locations within the facility, and tags will be carried by staff, as well as attached to some medical equipment for asset management. The badges worn by officers can be read by readers installed in the medical center to create a history of when he arrived and left the facility, as well as send an alert, if necessary, to authorized personnel if the officer leaves prematurely.

Visible Assets licenses its technology to about half a dozen companies so that they can make tags or RuBee products. These companies, Stevens says, include National Oilwell Varco, Seiko Epson, Laser Devices Inc., SMi Group, Dasco Data, Husky Plastics, Remington and Sig Sauer (see Gunning for Change). Visible Assets supplies tag chips to many of these company, Stevens says, and the company is in discussions with many others, including tag production facilities.