Tag Team: Materiel tracking system supports military

Project at a glance

Who: Army Product Manager'Automatic Identification Technology

Mission: To improve tracking and management of materiel in transit

What was: Paper manifests and vaguely marked shipments, which often resulted in materiel being lost or unclaimed

What is: Radio-frequency ID tags locate and identify shipments; readers can be set to scan a range of shipments to find specific items.

Users: All DOD personnel in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operations

Impact: Allows just-in-time logistics by ensuring shipments are received when and where needed.
Duration: In-Transit Visibility deployment began in 1997.

Cost: Most recent contract to Savi Technology for equipment and support was $90 million for five years.

The RFID tags, bar codes and cards used in ITV can be read remotely and their data sent automatically to a database to track progress.

Courtesy of SAV Technology

By reading radio tags remotely and sending data to a database automatically, ITV lets logistics officials keep close track of far-flung shipments.

Courtesy of SAV Technology

The Army's Ann Scotti says she expects that ITV will become a joint requirement.

Henrik G. de Gyor

In the first Gulf War, the Army's approach to logistics could perhaps best be described as brute-force.

'In 1991, there were thousands of cargo containers flooding the ports of Southwest Asia,' said Ann F. Scotti, manager of the Army's Product Manager-Automatic Identification Technology office.

Because of the difficulty of matching paper manifests with shipping containers, tens of thousands of containers had to be opened to find out what they held, and a lot of time and materiel was wasted. According to the General Accounting Office, $2.7 billion worth of spare parts shipped to the Gulf theater in 1991 went unused.

To prevent a recurrence, the Defense Department developed a worldwide radio-frequency ID network to track tagged cargo from its origin through the transportation system to its final destination, Scotti said.

The Army began moving toward just-in-time logistics in the summer of 2002, when Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks ordered RFID tags on all materiel shipments to troops in Afghanistan.

The policy grew in January to require tags on shipments for all future military operations, including the war in Iraq.

Through the In-Transit Visibility network, the Army used the RFID tags during the Iraq war to track everything from boots to bullets, so that supplies could reach the field when and where they were needed.
Scotti's office set out in 1995 to be the Defense Department's executive agent for automatic identification technology. The office formed from the merger of the Army's Logistics Applications in Marking and Reading Symbols and the Microcircuit Technology in Logistics Applications programs. PM-AIT takes its marching orders from the Army deputy chief of staff for logistics.

Units deployed in Iraq this year got Mobile RFID Flyaway Kits, also called Early Entry Deployment Support Kits, to support the last tactical mile of the in-transit network. They contained portable and handheld interrogators to read RFID tags, satellite antennas and phones for network connections, solar panels to generate power and other equipment to track supplies in real time.

Prior to the war, ITV was in use primarily by the Army, with some use by the Marine Corps. It now covers all of DOD logistics in Iraq, and 'we are anticipating that it will become more of a joint requirement,' Scotti said.

The British army also used the system in Iraq.

In March 2001, the ITV network read 3,148 tags. That climbed to 28,000 one year later and jumped to more than 2 million in March.

During that time the cost of the tags, manufactured by Savi Technology Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., has fallen from $149 each to $99.

'The building block of the technology is the tag,' said Vic Verma, Savi's chief executive officer. 'The whole intent is to make it user-friendly for soldiers in the field. If you get a lot of containers in the middle of the desert with limited computer resources and no infrastructure, the ability to find a specific container can be life or death.'
PM-AIT's job was to identify and incorporate commercial products to improve DOD logistics management. Besides RFID tags, technologies in use include bar codes, smart cards, and magnetic stripe and optical memory cards. Because the radio tags can be read remotely and their data sent automatically to a database to track progress, ITV gives end-to-end visibility from factory to fox hole.

'There is really only one contractor who manufactures the tags,' Scotti said.

Savi received a contract in August 1997 to provide transponder tags; fixed, portable and handheld readers; and associated hardware, software and support for ITV. The company was awarded a second, similar contract in February.

One tag worth 1,000 words

The tracking begins with a battery-powered tag that is fixed to a shipping container, pallet or individual item for shipment. The tag can hold from 96 bits to 128K of data depending on its size and intended use. Identifying data is written to the tag when it is placed on a shipment. The tag also can link to more extensive information in a central database.

When queried by a reader, the tag broadcasts its identity at 433 MHz. Fixed readers have been placed in ports, depots and other 'choke points' in the transportation chain to track items. Portable readers can check goods as they come in at their destinations. And handheld readers can locate specific containers at receiving areas and in the field. The handheld devices have a range of about 100 feet and can search for specific containers or scan all containers within range.

'They are tied in with some sophisticated software to predict where each container is and when it will reach its destination,' Verma said.

About 750 sites in 40 countries have permanent readers, including major air and sea ports and military depots.

When a tag is read, information about its contents is retrievable from a database, and information about the container's location returns to the database. Regional ITV servers in Germany, South Korea and Southwest Asia forward data to the national ITV server in Reston, Va. Its data is forwarded to the Global Transportation Network, which supports the Army and Joint Total Asset Visibility databases.

Verma said the off-the-shelf technology of the Army's ITV also is in use by the private sector. The system has some unique challenges, however. Unlike commercial organizations, which can entrust a shipment to one carrier end-to-end, the military must ship its supplies through myriad hands. And shipments' destinations can become moving targets when recipients are on the move.
One of the biggest challenges is working in remote areas with little infrastructure.

That's where solar generators and satellite links come in. 'If we have stable power and communications, it works fine,' Scotti said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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