The Next Big App for the Military: RFID

By Peter Collins

To automate its IT asset-management capabilities, the U.S. military should take an aggressive approach to further leverage radio frequency identification technologies.

In the 21st century, we have seen an explosion in the growth of computers and digital equipment. The U.S. military has tried its best to embrace the Information Age with both arms. Modern warfighters now have an array of digital communication tools and equipment available to them, via smartphones, tablets and laptops, to night-vision goggles and navigation equipment. The modern soldiers are supported by their command and control centers that have an even larger amount of fixed and portable digital tools and equipment at their disposal.

The development of these digital communication, navigation and information systems has been instrumental to the success of the modern U.S. military. It seems likely that, in the future, there will only be more reliance on this kind of information technology (IT) equipment. The military (along with the rest of our modern society) is committed to utilizing computers, mobile devices and other IT assets that will give them the tools to do their jobs better and faster.

Logistical Challenges
Of course, the downside is that all of this IT equipment comes at a cost. IT assets obviously incur an upfront cost that will hit the budgets; but, maybe more important are the ongoing logistical costs. U.S. Congress mandates that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) maintain accountability on each and every asset in its possession. Tracking the location and movement of all of the computer equipment in any one of the branches of the military (let alone the entire armed services and the organizations that serve them) is a massive undertaking.

To further compound and complicate this issue, many of these computers and IT assets contain highly sensitive data and need to be stored in secure areas. Often, this same digital equipment needs to be mission-ready—which includes being fully charged, operable, compatible and in a portable storage container for transport, ready to go at a moment's notice. Maintaining frequent and regular accountability of the data and the storage devices, along with managing the location and the readiness of this equipment, is a major security issue, in addition to being a formidable logistical challenge.

Digital assets are often embedded in larger assemblies, and many times end up being very difficult to gain access to. Unfortunately, even though they are a component or subcomponent of a larger system, they still need to be accounted for. There is also a concern, in some circles, for authenticating the integrity of the hardware and to prevent the infiltration of counterfeit computer components into the supply chain.

The DoD has an enormous amount of computers and digital equipment for which they need to maintain accountability. The U.S. military does not have the luxury to perform manual inventories on their digital equipment—there are just too many items and not enough time. An organization that is the size of the Department of Defense needs to be able to automate its IT asset-management process in order to maintain accountability, track each individual asset and fulfill the required annual audits.

The Killer App for the Military: RFID Asset Tracking
The two most common automatic-identification asset-tracking systems currently in place utilize either bar codes or the use of RFID. Bar codes (today's military standards for asset identification, called IUID, is a 2D bar code) have been accepted as an asset-tracking best practice for many years, and organizations around the world, including the U.S. military, have relied upon their effectiveness. RFID has also been around for many years, but is just recently gaining greater acceptance and adoption in the defense community. Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses.

A major benefit of RFID over bar codes is the ability for faster read rates—particularly when the items are embedded, hard to reach or enclosed in a container. All of these scenarios are typical operating or storage conditions for the military.

RFID systems can also be set up to manage and monitor configuration controls. The actual configuration of an embedded component in a digital asset can be checked against the expected configuration, using RFID without having to physically touch or open any of the assembly.

RFID can also improve accuracy by adding a higher level of detailed asset-tracking information. Because RFID has the ability to capture asset information so rapidly, systems can be put into place to record more detailed and frequent information. Because RFID allows for faster data sharing and decreases data processing, inventory counts become more efficient and sharable.

Managing the Data
One of the cornerstones of the U.S. military's auto-ID policy is the mandatory reporting to a centralized master database for all DoD properties. Every branch of the military and the contractors that support them are all required to report their unique asset data to the IUID Registry and iRAPT. This kind of complex reporting requires a modern, flexible, cloud-based asset-tracking software that can utilize bar-code or RFID and share data with these government systems to manage all of the asset information.

While speaking at this year's RFID Journal LIVE! event, I appreciated the number of U.S. military initiatives that utilized RFID technology at the item level. Typically, case studies from the military have revolved around the DoD's long-standing policy of using RFID for military shipments. This progression of utilizing RFID at the item level—and not just at the shipment level—is exciting and exactly where the U.S. military needs to go. But there is still room for improvement.

The U.S. military should take an aggressive approach to further leverage RFID technology in order to automate its IT asset-management capabilities. The benefits of RFID technology will provide improved visibility and accuracy, as well as maintain a higher level of accountability of each unique asset, in order to comply with mandated audits.

Peter Collins, A2B Tracking's president and CEO, has worked with many industries, including the U.S. Department of Defense, on auto-ID policy development and implementation. He has played a key role as a consultant to the DoD in the department's efforts to adopt the use of IUID and RFID technology since 2004. He received the ID Global Leadership Award in 2009 for his role in worldwide adoption of IUID, and is an active participant in auto-ID industry trade associations.