Project to mesh with supply chain

Ad-hoc networking improves battlefield asset management

EN ROUTE: Containers holding medical and personal gear for the US Army 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital are loaded into a cargo plane in Germany.

Arthur McQue

The Army Logistics Innovation Agency wants to come down to earth in its efforts to manage the flow of equipment on the battlefield.

'It's too expensive to track containers with satellite communications. That's why we've stopped talking [satellite communications] for tracking shipments and assets,' said Bill Jarrett, leader for the agency's Next Generation Wireless Communications (NGWC) project.

'Our goal is to connect the various backbone communications capabilities in existence on the battlefield,' Jarrett said. 'We can't afford satcom for everything.'

The key capability being developed under NGWC involves tying the radio frequency identification tags already on Army shipments into ad hoc 'mesh' networks in order to communicate content and location information, and provide shipment visibility to Army logisticians.

Ad hoc networks differ from traditional networks in that they are self-organizing, with each node relaying signals through neighboring devices. Traditional networks operate through more centralized control.

'There are thousands of containers on the move at any given time, and they are moving too fast to know who has what, when,' Jarrett said. 'NGWC is an enhancement to the current RFID fixed-nodal infrastructure.'

The Army's current RFID network is operated by Savi Technology Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., which pioneered the technology. Lockheed Martin Corp. bought Savi in May.

Clear picture

Savi's tags communicate the location of shipments as they pass through fixed nodes in the network.

'NGWC would enhance asset visibility beyond the fixed RFID infrastructure, enabling on-demand global total asset visibility,' Jarrett said

NGWC's building blocks include commercial technologies that already are in use in industrial, factory and facilities management applications, Jarrett said.

'We are discussing relatively low-data-rate, low-power sensor mesh networks, not tactical or strategic communication nets,' he said. 'The sensor mesh technology in use today is a largely static, externally powered mesh network technology where the mesh is always up and running, maintaining connectivity. There is a significant [commercial] market in that area.'

But there are a number of challenges involved in adapting current mesh technologies to the Army's mobile networking requirements. One involves the development of the software routing codes and algorithms that would enable mobile mesh networking.

'A mobile mesh network would be more complicated to implement and would require much more complex protocols,' said Simon Cavenett, an independent telecommunications consultant in Washington. 'There is also the issue of battery sufficiency in the case of a mobile network.'

Jarrett's assessment is that 'the necessary radio chip sets are commercially available, but it will be the control of the mesh, and therefore power consumption, that will be the difficult hurdle.

'This limited power source and a requirement to have long battery life will necessitate a mesh design quite different from what is in use today,' he added. 'New COTS mesh chips with reduced power consumption can be adopted as they become available.'

LIA is developing this specific mesh technology under a multiyear contract, according to Jarrett. 'There are a large number of companies out there involved in commercial applications for mesh technology, and we expect to benefit from the chip sets and mesh techniques they produce for that market,' he said.

Arinc Engineering Services LLC of Annapolis, Md., and Impeva Labs Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., are among the companies with NGWC-related contracts.
Cavenett described current mobile mesh networking as 'still very much in the research stage.'

But Jarrett said LIA is targeting the third quarter of fiscal 2007 to demonstrate initial NGWC mesh functionality.

'It will take another year or two to incorporate features that satisfy DOD information assurance requirements,' Jarrett said. 'This demonstration will be the first-generation mesh capability, and the mesh will be updated and modified going into fiscal year 2008 as we demonstrate the capability against logistics processes.'

About the Author

Peter Buxbaum is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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