RFID Brings Real-Time Visibility to Bataan Memorial Death March

By Claire Swedberg

The system recorded the progress of participating runners and walkers along a 26-mile route through the desert, activating cameras at each location and posting participants' photos on social media.

When participants walked or ran through the Bataan Memorial Death March, held a few weeks ago at the White Sands Missile Range, in the New Mexican desert, radio frequency identification technology was tracking their progress and speed. The solution employed passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags on bibs, as well as RFID readers at five key locations. The Jaguar Race Timing system—provided by Innovative Timing Systems (ITS), based in St. Louis, Mo.—captured the location of every participant (to be linked to the time at which he or she reached each milestone), activated cameras at every location and linked that individual to pictures automatically taken of him or her that could then be forwarded to social-media sites.

The Bataan Memorial Death March is held annually to commemorate the World War II Bataan Death March, which took place in 1942 when the Japanese military forced 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war to march 65 miles through the tropically hot Philippine jungles, resulting in many casualties. The event is intended to honor those who took part in the actual Death March during the war, and to raise money and awareness for today's injured war veterans. Participants typically include active members of the military, as well as veterans and civilian athletes from around the world, and are met by many surviving Death March soldiers, who are now in their 90s. (This year, one survivor—Ben Skardon, age 97—completed eight and a half miles of the course.) The race, which involves walking for some, running for others, follows a 26.2-mile route through sandy terrain that includes a 400-foot vertical climb. (A 14.2-mile option—essentially, the southern portion of the 26.2-mile course—is also available.)

An array of overhead RFID reader antennas captured the RFID tag IDs of Bataan Memorial Death March participants as they crossed the starting line.

The race can take some walkers 12 hours to complete, and it takes about one and a half hours for all of the participants to reach the starting line, since, at the beginning of the event, they first file past a surviving Death March veteran and shake his hand.

This year's event involved 6,616 participants. Erin Dorrance, White Sands Missile Range's public affairs chief, says the race started at 6:30 a.m., with the last participant crossing the finish line at 10 p.m. the same day. For the first time this year, the event used a UHF RFID system from ITS. The solution included ITS' RFID readers at the starting point and finish line, as well as at three locations in between. At each site, multiple cameras were also installed, with RFID data and camera images collected by ITS' cloud-based software via a microwave transmitter that accessed a cellular network, which would have otherwise been out of range of the desert location.

"We needed the system for accountability," says David Rodriguez, White Sands Missile Range's information security officer. Although another RFID timing system had been used for several years in the past, it failed to provide a view into when participants had crossed mileposts, and thus where marchers were located at any given time. Accountability is important for several reasons, he says. "There's nothing but desert around us," he states, describing the event's venue. What's more, if anyone strays off the trail, there is the potential for walking into an unexploded ordinance possibly dating back decades.

For this year's event, each participant was assigned a bib with an ITS RFID tag attached to it. The tag is encoded with a unique ID number linked to that participant's information, such as his or her name and event category. The ID could also be linked to that person's social-media account, such as Facebook, and the team with whom that individual was participating.

An RFID reader captured tag IDs as participants crossed the starting line, reached certain milestones and passed the finish line, and identified each tag's location based on the array of antennas installed overhead. When an individual came within range of a reader, the cameras were triggered at that location and the photographs taken were linked to that individual's ID, based on the RFID tag read. The software used its own intelligence to determine the best pictures taken of each individual. It then sent four or five of those images to that person's e-mail address, as well as posting them on the participant's social-media site, if so requested.

ITS used the microwave transmitter to connect with the Internet, thereby creating a private cellular network to stream live data online. "We create our own cell tower," says Kurt Hansen, Innovative Timing Systems' founder and CEO.

The tags were then read at three other points for the long race participants, and at one other point for the short race, thereby providing event coordinators with a view into any individual who may have failed to reach the next milestone in a timely manner, indicating a potential problem. Pictures were taken at these locations as well.

Finally, as a participant passed the finish line, the system automatically calculated that individual's completion time and sent it to the marcher's mobile phone via ITS' Its Your Race app, and to that person's social-media account. He or she could also view the results at a computer station installed onsite. This was especially valuable, Rodriguez says, since the final time is typically the first thing participants ask for upon finishing the race.

During this year's Bataan Memorial Death March, Rodriguez reports, approximately 30 tags were not read at the finish line. The majority of these, if not all, represented participants who either lost their bib along the way, or decided not to complete the race.

Next year, Rodriguez plans to add more readers to the course in order to provide more granular detail regarding participants' locations. The event can accommodate a maximum of 7,000 participants, Dorrance says, and she hopes to reach that number next year, since 2017 is also the 75th anniversary of the actual Bataan Death March.

ITS launched in 2006 to provide an alternative to existing RFID race-timing solutions that typically employ low-frequency (LF) or high-frequency (HF) passive RFID tags and reader-mats to interrogate chips or tags on athletes' shoes. Hansen says he has a background in RF engineering, antenna design, software engineering and electronic circuit design, and is a ham radio hobbyist. He was intrigued by the concept of overcoming the weaknesses of existing RFID racing systems. The LF or HF passive RFID tags and readers, for instance, do not provide high read rates, he says, while the mats represent a trip hazard. "I wanted to take the reading overhead," he states. Therefore, he built a lab in his own basement and spent two years developing a UHF-based system with overhead reader antennas to capture tag IDs on bibs and pinpoint each bib's location based on several factors.

"We use a combination of signal strength, triangulation and some other mathematical processes" that Hansen invented, he explains. "We have races where we might have 32 antennas at a single timing point, so there are complex algorithms that handle the process." ITS refers to this locating system as the reader's Calc Engine, and it's what decides the final finish time.

For event management, the Jaguar software not only helps coordinators know if someone is falling behind, but it can also identify if that individual has diverted from his or her initially planned race (such as a long race participant opting for the short course). The system determines, based on which reader stations the individuals pass, whether they have changed course, and can then reassign them accordingly in the software.

Hansen has worked with Alien Technology for its reader and tag technology since he launched his business in 2006. That, Hansen says, is due to the company's flexible attitude regarding his request for Alien to modify its readers. For the Jaguar system, he uses the Alien reader with ITS' own firmware and antennas designed for the racing environment. The company also builds its own tags, which it designs with assistance from Alien. ITS, in fact, offers 14 different tags, each with its own unique performance attributes for different types of racing. A tag used in motorcycle racing, for instance, requires different performance than one attached to a ski boot or a runner's bib.

Existing UHF systems were still not achieving read rates above 98 percent because of the necessity of talking to each antenna port individual, thereby creating a delay in read data. Hansen says ITS has engineered a solution through its antennas and their high front-to-back ratio—that is, the ratio of received-signal strength when the antenna is rotated 180 degrees. Typically, he notes, other RFID timing systems on the market miss one or sometimes two individuals' tags out of 1,000 during a race. ITS' solution, in contrast, ensures a tag read rate of at least 99.999 percent, or one individual out of 100,000.

The Jaguar solution also includes lasers that are beamed across the finish line to confirm the RFID read time, for a finish time precise to 1,000th of a second. This can be especially important in the case of a high-speed finish. For instance, at the 3rd Annual Bootleg Challenge, held in September 2015 in Boulder City, Nev., during the Interbike International Bicycle Exposition, ITS used the laser to confirm the exact time at which each tagged participant reached the finish line. (White Sands Missile Range opted not to utilize the laser functionality for this year's Bataan Memorial Death March.) The system's cameras can also play a role in timing. When the reader triggers the cameras to begin photographing a participant based on a tag read, the software can then use those high-resolution images to confirm the time captured by the reader and the laser.

ITS' system can also feed race results to broadcast systems so that the results and corresponding images can be viewed live. During the past year, Interbike and other race events have utilized the technology in this way, with data being received from the readers and cameras within one-quarter of a second after that data is first captured.

While there are other companies that offer UHF RFID race-timing solutions, Hansen says, his firm's research finds that the results are better with the Jaguar system. Hansen will describe the solution in detail at a presentation on May 5 during RFID Journal LIVE!, being held in Orlando, Fla.