Army goes wireless on cargo handling

Applies field-tested WiFi system to streamline operations

Many thousands of tons of military cargo move through American seaports every month, dispatched on ships to support bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere else troops are stationed.

Keeping track of the cargo'hidden inside nondescript steel containers, with no visible clue of their contents'has always been a challenge. Labels slapped on the boxes can be scanned for the information, but that's only part of the information flow. The gathered data has to be fed back into the logistics system.

The Army's Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems is aiming to streamline the process through a beta test under way at the Port of Beaumont, in Texas, that uses handheld scanners, 2-D barcodes and wireless technology. The pilot employs Combat Service Support Automated Information Systems Interface (CAISI), an IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN technology the Army uses to support troops in the field.

Busy port

The Beaumont port handled more than 1.26 million measurement tons in fiscal 2005. (A measurement ton is equal to 40 cubic feet of cargo.) Beaumont includes two primary rail spurs and more than 50 acres of staging area, and can handle simultaneous loading and unloading of two large roll-on/roll-off ships. Each ship can carry an entire Army brigade task force, including 58 tanks, 48 other tracked vehicles, and more than 900 trucks and other wheeled vehicles.

Before the advent of CAISI, 'I take the scanner out [on the docks], I scan and do work for about four hours,' said Chris Easton, the automatic identification technologies (AIT) team leader for the Army's Surface Deployment and Distribution Com- mand Worldwide Port System. 'After four hours of work, I go back and upload the information. What can go wrong in those four hours? The scanner can lock up, and the user can't get to [the information.] ... Also, since it's a batch upload, there's no information in the system until the upload.'

To compensate for possible problems, crews working among the containers resorted to paper-and-pencil backups, taking notes manually that duplicated the information in the scanners'just in case.

In addition, the lists were held in a 'to be uploaded' stack, then moved to the 'upload complete' stack as they were completed. 'In the chaos and stress of already-busy ports, they can get put in the wrong pile,' Easton said. 'Then we lose that information.'

The new system eliminates both the delay and the paper backup, he said. Wireless scanners transmit the information in real time to the logistics system.

Ports present a significant challenge for WiFi. While the use of wireless scanners has become relatively commonplace inside warehouses, 'they don't have a lot of heavy, metal big things interrupting' the signal, he said. The acres of containers at the port, however, form 'canyons of steel.'

Promising results

Brad Amon, lead system engineer for CAISI, which is part of the Army Infor-mation Systems Engineering Command, said the field test showed promise.

'We're responsible for creating a deployable network,' Amon said, 'so units can deploy into an area four by four square miles, and have communications between tents, vans or vehicles that are located anywhere in that area.'

SDDC found that CAISI was able to cover long distances and maintain the integrity of transmissions, Amon said.

Constructing the communications zone requires installing interrogators, which pick up the handheld scanners' signals, and repeaters, which forward the signals to the base system.

The network also has to include redundancy, so that if one signal route is blocked, perhaps by containers being transported, an alternate route is available.

'Beaumont is a particularly nice beta site,' Easton said. 'It's in a basin, all the railheads come in there, all the cargo is staged there, and the ships come in there, in a relatively contained area.'

The next step for CAISI is deployment at the Port of Charleston, in South Carolina. That installation presents new challenges.

'In Charleston, there are three [staging] areas on the station itself. They're dispersed from each other, but tied together in one network,' Easton said. The signals will have to be transmitted five miles to the base unit.

There are two major goals in setting up the wireless networks, he said. The first is evident'cutting down on the number of times a container has to be handled.

For the second, 'what I'm trying to address is user confidence,' Easton said. 'Right now the user has a reasonable concern that data won't be available to him when he has to upload it.'


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