U.S. Department of Defense Signs New Contract for Supply Chain Visibility

By Claire Swedberg

The DoD's latest contract with Savi Technology focuses on Internet of Things solutions leveraging satellite and cellular networks, while phasing out active RFID, thereby providing agencies with IoT-based visibility of assets and inventory as goods move around the world.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)'s Army Contracting Command-Rock Island has signed a contract to employ active RFID and Internet of Things (IoT) technology for asset tracking and supply chain visibility as goods travel globally. The $45 million-ceiling contract, signed with Savi Technology, focuses on the location of goods via active RFID, with lighter-weight hardware that is easier to deploy in the field.

The contract serves as an extension to a 30-year relationship between the DoD and Savi Technology. Previously, Savi served as the prime contractor for four contracts: RFID-I through RFID-IV. The DoD has used Savi products to help manage the global supply chain of equipment and supplies used by the department. Traditionally, goods were identified as they moved through portals at specific chokepoints along the supply chain. With the RFID-V contract, the agency's goal is to continue to provide in-transit visibility of goods around the world, including in potentially austere or hostile environments, while leveraging a blend of technologies.

Savi's Rosemary Johnston

Savi, located in Alexandria, Va., has provided passive and active RFID systems for the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, the Army National Guard and the U.S. Marine Corps, according to Rosemary Johnston, the company's senior VP of operations. The technology has been used to manage several million items to date, she reports, with RFID tags or other IoT devices.

The latest contract will include active RFID tags and readers, along with iridium satellite communications (SATCOM) and portable deployment kits (PDKs). The RFID-V contract will also leverage new products from Savi, including its PDK III, a lighter-weight version of its kits that incorporates the same capability as predecessor units, and with a smaller footprint. The Army National Guard and Army Reserves have placed an order for $8.2 million to modernize their PDK units with the new PDK III products. These were shipped to the National Guard in April 2020, and Savi recently finished delivering 354 PDK III units to the Army Reserves.

With the new two-year contract—which comes with two one-year optional extensions and was awarded on July 17—the DoD has also phased out satellite-only tags, to be replaced by next-generation transponders with cellular and satellite tags. There are several other changes as well. In previous years, RFID-IV purchasers could select three-, four- or five-years warranties, while the latest contract includes a five-year warrantee only, provided by Savi. And while the contract still includes active RFID technology, the DoD plans to phase it out over time, in favor of the new satellite and cellular devices. The goal, Johnston explains, is to move users from active infrastructure, such as fixed RFID readers, to satellite cellular devices that can collect and share data without requiring a reader.

Savi invented its 433 MHz RFID technology in 2006, using the ISO 18000-7 standard, and it has since been used in the commercial sector and by governments to identify goods where RFID readers are deployed—for instance, in a warehouse or at a gate, doorway or roadside. Interrogators can be mounted in extreme conditions and accomplish a 400-foot read range.

However, at some locations, deploying infrastructure at a specific site would not be as convenient as collecting real-time data via satellite or cellular networks. The evolution of satellite and cellular technology, Johnston says, has meant that data can be collected via cell towers when they are available, as well as by satellites, anywhere around the world, without requiring a reader. The price of that technology, she notes, is coming down. "Active RFID infrastructure can be expensive and takes a lot of power," Johnston states.

The interrogators are typically fixed and require cabled power and Ethernet connections to forward data to a network. As the DoD sends personnel to places where they cannot deploy a fixed infrastructure, or where power may be limited, the department has been seeking to leverage the advantages of cellular and satellite technologies. The DoD has made the decision to focus on adoption that does not rely on RFID, Johnston says, in part because "They will have faster updates on where their goods are."

According to Johnston, the PDK III is intended to provide greater nimbleness and versatility when it comes to setting up read stations in the field. The PDK traditionally came with a laptop, a printer and a handheld interrogator. The result was a rather large kit, she says, adding, "That unit in its totality has been removed." The lighter-weight PDK comes with a tablet and an attached mobile reader without the handheld interrogator and laptop. That PDK version also has been removed.

The PDK III consists of a tablet with a mobile reader, a 2D barcode scanner and an iridium satellite to provide connectivity to a server. The RFID reader can capture tag IDs within a range of 150 feet. In a typical scenario, a PDK III could be set up as a mobile checkpoint next to a discharge ramp on a ship. The kit could use DC power from a vehicle or be operated via AC power. As goods are unloaded from the vessel, the tags are read using the active RFID reader, and are then forwarded to the server using the PDK IIIs satellite modem.

Savi also provides its SmartChain software to capture and manage the collected data, which is forwarded to the agency's own management system. The first order with the new contract came in on July 17 for two PDK IIIs, and Savi has subsequently been quoting prices to other DoD agencies. In addition, the firm sells its IoT solutions to companies leveraging satellite and cellular networks. Savi has already released a cellular suite of devices, Johnston says, and is currently developing satellite devices. "We've seen the writing on the wall with changes in technology," she states.

"Active RFID has suited them well, but as times change, so must we all," Johnston says. With RFID, she explains, "You only know the last perceived location," whereas with satellite or cellular connectivity, location can be identified even out at sea. The cellular and satellite connectivity was first offered with the RFID-IV contract. For instance, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) purchased 24,000 cellular tags for tracking assets at its depots. "As the use cases bear out," she says, "we're finding more people interested in the technology" and are willing to pay the additional price.

The tags can accomplish lower energy use by being set to beacon less frequently, Johnston notes. The tags can also be programmed to only transmit if they are in motion, based on detection by their built-in motion sensors. Assets sitting in a distribution yard, for instance, can remain dormant and save battery life unless someone moves one of them. "Our goal is to continue to evolve the technology," Johnston says, adding that active RFID may continue for some time.