DOD Details its RFID Plans

The U.S. military is stepping up its plans for RFID pilot projects following a recent decision to deploy the wireless tags by 2005.

Although the U.S. Army has used radio-frequency identification tags for nearly a decade, it was the recent Gulf War that prompted the Department of Defenses recent decision to adopt them, a senior official said.

The Defense Department said last week that it will require its suppliers to deploy RFID tags by January 2005, the same date that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to deploy the technology in the commercial space.

/zimages/6/28571.gifThe U.S. military and Wal-Mart stores are leading the charge on radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. Click here for more information on their strategy and the technology.

Ed Coyle, chief of the Department of Defense Logistics Automatic Identification Technology within the Defense Logistics Agencys Information Operations directorate (J-6), said via e-mail that it was premature to assess how much the project will cost. By spring 2004, the agency hopes to have some pilot projects in place to help the DOD assess the potential value of the program.

Last week, the DOD held an internal meeting to determine how to proceed with implementing RFID tags, and the agencys next step will be to hold similar meetings with technology providers and the DODs own suppliers to build partnerships and plan a timetable, Coyle said. Initially, the agency will tag assets at the case- and pallet-level. In addition, valuable assets will receive tags to mark them both for physical inventory as well as financial accounting.

The DOD will use two types of tags: passive, which requires the monitoring device to power the tag itself; and active, where the tag contains its own power supply. Passive tags are often powered by low-power microwaves, which convert the transmitted energy into power and reply with a weak radio signal.

While the Army pioneered the use of RFID tags, the need for them among the other U.S. armed forces was brought home during recent overseas conflicts.

"Application of active RFID is the result of asset-visibility issues that plagued us during the Gulf War," Coyle said. "Their use was spearheaded by the Army for a decade, and we now have a written policy that requires their broader application in logistics operations."

Initially, each active tag will cost about $100, although the DOD is working with its suppliers on programs to reduce the cost further. Passive tags will cost the agency under a dollar, Coyle said.

"When we are tracking moving vehicles or cargo containers from 100 meters away, with lots of data on the tag, the cost [of the active tag] is reasonable for many applications," Coyle said. "Passive tags, readable from 2 to 10 meters with limited data on the tag, have a different application and will provide value added for a dollar or less, and even wider application and value as they go down in cost. Our job for DOD is to find the right mix in an era of maturing and constantly changing RFID technology.

Initially, the tags will be used to identify the bulkiest items. "Our current use of active tags is usually on large or valuable pieces of equipment or consolidated shipments—that is ocean containers or air pallets," Coyle said. "Our initial passive RFID implementation will be at the case or warehouse pallet level where inexpensive tags will facilitate distribution processes and perhaps provide added granularity to item level visibility for some specific commodities. We are working with technology vendors to develop the path where the tags come together and provide automatic data association."

However, Coyle said, the International Standards Union and EPC Global (a partnership between the commercial standards-setting organization The Uniform Code Council and EAN International, an international consortium dedicated to improving the supply chain) are working to develop further standards. These improvements could use RFID tags to track even individual items, he said.

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