RFID Could Spell Relief for U.N.

By Mark Roberti

Adopting RFID all at once could lower the cost of deployment, deliver business benefits and offset a government mandate to track drugs.

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If you are a supply-chain executive and you think your job is tough, consider David Nabarro's lot in life. He is a senior systems coordinator for the United Nations Development Group, which develops policies and procedures for member agencies to work together. His job is to get relief to the sick, hungry and dying who have been afflicted by a natural or man-made disaster. His supply chain is your worst nightmare.

When an earthquake, flood or other disaster devastates a region, Nabarro and his team must react quickly to coordinate relief efforts. Supplies flow in from hundreds of government agencies and charitable organizations around the world. Under ideal conditions, the area may not have the infrastructure needed to handle the volume of shipments; after a disaster, whatever infrastructure did exist is likely damaged. In addition, employees who normally operate port or airport equipment might be injured or unable to report for work.

And that's just the beginning. Weather conditions could complicate relief efforts. The communications infrastructure is usually damaged or destroyed. Often, equipment and supplies can't be protected from heat, moisture and other harsh environmental conditions. Time becomes critical because people need medical care, and supplies could rot before they ever get to the people who need them.

Nabarro believes that RFID could greatly assist in relief efforts. "When the tsunami struck the Indonesian island of Aceh in December 2004, we had 350 organizations arrive in Aceh within two weeks," he told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce audience in October. "Communication was difficult. Travel was difficult. It was hard to understand what was going on, and the needs of people were changing day by day. A large number of supplies arrived at the airport. We had backlogs and delays as we tried to inventory everything arriving. We estimate that it could have been 60 to 100 times more effective had we had RFID technology and systems to take inventory and move the goods through the airport to the needy. I have no doubt we could have used the technology to get relief to people more easily."

Using RFID in relief operations will not happen overnight. The first challenge will be getting relief agencies to agree to put RFID tags on goods being sent to a stricken region. Most probably know little about the technology, which is being deployed commercially by companies in a wide variety of industries, but not by most governments. Relief agencies might object to having to bear the additional cost of purchasing and applying the tags.

Another problem is getting relief organizations around the world to agree on a single standard. There's no point in having countries ship goods with RFID tags if the relief agencies in the stricken country can't read those tags. And the equipment used to read the tags and manage the flow of goods using the RFID data has to be robust enough to operate in the harshest environmental conditions. Very long battery life is critical when power is not easily accessible. The systems might have to use satellite phones to transmit information to a central host, since the Internet would almost certainly be inaccessible in a disaster.

RFID could also be critical in the case of a pandemic. Since relief agencies would be sending personnel into a stricken area, Nabarro said it would be critical to be able to track those people and assure that they are not infected. "RFID could help us track medical supplies and vaccines being sent to a stricken region," he said. "And it could help us ensure that vaccines are not tampered with."

Nabarro said that relief agencies would like to use RFID to track the expiration dates of vaccines and other drugs, monitor their temperature as they move through the supply chain to a stricken area, and make sure they are not tampered with. He said it would be up to industry to adopt the technology first and tag products that are used in relief efforts.

"I hope it will be possible for the technology to be routinely used for tracking goods that we would use in our relief efforts and in a pandemic situation," he said. "These technologies will make a difference in our ability to bring relief to millions of people in the event of a pandemic, or in the kinds of emergency relief efforts we are involved with today."