Ready, aim, record

Army's prototype system uses RFID tags to track weapons use <@VM>Sidebar: Tools to make sense of sensors

In the heat of battle, the last thing any warfighter wants to do is paperwork. Yet soldiers have to keep track of how many times they fire their weapons during combat, largely so the Army can better estimate when each weapon has reached the end of its useful life.

Now the Army is turning to its Ben't Laboratories for ways to automate such tallies by attaching radio frequency identification tags and associated circuitry to weapons.

'We envision a system that will automatically count rounds fired, perform basic health monitoring, and upload this information directly into existing or modified databases,' said Kevin Miner, program manager at the Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, which oversees Ben't. 'The goal is to automate counting of ammo fired and to provide increased operational and maintenance capabilities through automation.'

Commercial versions of the equipment could begin appearing by the end of the year. The prototype was first tested on guns installed on M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tanks. The lab did initial testing on a medium-caliber cannon barrel for several hundred shots. 'Putting the prototype on an existing fielded system will allow real-world testing in some of the harshest environments imaginable,' Miner said.

The technology package placed on each weapon consists of a piezoelectric sensor that determines when the weapon has been fired by sensing the recoil, a tiny processor with limited memory to record and store output from the sensor, and an RFID tag to communicate the data to an RFID reader.

Using signatures developed by the lab, the package can record the number and type of rounds fired and even deduce other characteristics from the intensity of the firing, such as strain, acceleration, heat and resonant electromagnetic frequencies, all of which can help estimate the viability of the weapons.

Knowing when to retire

By automating data collection, the Army can more accurately gauge wear and tear on weapons. 'Counting ammo use on every system is imperative to determining the component-part fatigue and when to send it in for service,' Miner said.

For Ben't Laboratories, the research was a natural outgrowth of its core missions of designing large-caliber cannon and mortar systems and investigating new developments in armaments science, engineering, testing and manufacturing.

'We are striving to develop the science and computational analysis capabilities to evaluate the recorded and retrieved physical data so barrels that are showing signs of abnormal wear, erosion or fatigue cracks can be flagged for closer inspection,' Miner said. 'This solution helps to take the guesswork out of operations and maintenance and increases safety.' Collecting this data for analysis, however, is still a manual chore ' hence the need for the RFID tags. Gun crews must write down on paper cards the number of times they have fired their weapons, Miner said. Maintenance personnel then estimate how worn the weapons are getting. Tracking weapon use through spent ammunition isn't effective because a gun crew might get it from multiple sources.

The paper-based approach, however, is not ideal either.

'Keeping track of the number and types of rounds fired could be a distraction and, in some cases, will not be done if the situation prevents it,' Miner said. Gun barrels have limited life spans, and if the estimates are off because of faulty counting, they might be discarded prematurely or used past their optimal lifetimes, which can be dangerous.

The data entry is also a manual process. Logistics employees at weapons depots enter data from forms the gun crews submit.

'Maintenance personnel can use the electronic weapon record data management application to analyze the data and easily output the information to other management software or databases,' Miner said.

Automating the process is expected to reduce errors, produce more good data and gather it more quickly. Handheld RFID readers could be attached to a laptop PC, which could gather data in the field. Or, when the weapons are returned to the depot, they could be read en masse and the data entered into a server.

'Tags from multiple systems may be read simultaneously and uploaded to the database within minutes at a time convenient to the warfighter or on an automated basis,' Miner said.

Last fall, the lab awarded network technology provider Augusta Systems a $1.18 million contract to develop middleware to link the sensor packages to the back-end system. American Science and Technology developed the piezoelectric sensor, and South Dakota State University also assisted the lab.

Augusta customized a software package that can compile the results from multiple weapons. It is based on the company's Sensor- Bridge software, which offers a set of Microsoft Visual Studio plug-ins for managing data inputs from RFID systems, said Patrick Esposito, president and chief operating officer at Augusta.

The next iterations of the prototypes will be tested on the large gun barrels and mortars of weapons systems such as the M1A2, Paladin Self Propelled Howitzer, or the M777 and M198 Towed Howitzers, Miner said. The lab also would like to add the RFID technology to the Future Combat Systems weapon platforms.

'The technology is being developed to be generic and may also find its way to small- and medium-caliber guns and even to systems other than guns that may benefit from automated health monitoring,' Miner said.
SensorBridge software helps Army build the middleware that converts data into database-ready information

Agencies deploy more sensing devices every day, but the data they collect often doesn't have the impact it could. 'Many of these devices are still being stovepiped,' said Patrick Esposito, president and chief operating officer at Augusta Systems. 'There is no correlation between all this data.'

For the Army's project to outfit weapons systems with radio frequency identification tags, Augusta provided its SensorBridge software to build the middleware that converts data from the tags into database-ready information.

The company provides tools to facilitate what Esposito calls sensor convergence, or the tying together of data from multiple sensors into a set of data that standard database and business intelligence tools can observe and analyze.

SensorBridge is a software development kit used in Microsoft Visual Studio. It provides pre-built components to support the integration, correlation, processing and communication of data.

If an RFID reader in a warehouse is collecting data and users want to aggregate that data into a database at the office, SensorBridge can help build the program.

SensorBridge can work with many forms of low-level data transmitted via a network, such as files that result from Web services, or it can be used for direct RFID access via a Dynamic Link Library. It can package the data and ship it to a database or bundle the results into an Extensible Markup Language-based file. It can facilitate complex event processing, filtering, notification, correlation and low-level fusion.

The company also offers runtime middleware called EdgeFrontier and a datacollection appliance called SensorPort.

The Army wants to use RFID data to better estimate when to replace gun barrels, but Esposito said there are many other possible uses of distributed data collection. The Naval Air Systems Command is testing the company's products for a distributed perimeter-monitoring system in which unattended ground systems and unmanned aerial vehicles would collect and transmit data for monitoring. Electric utilities use the platform for remote circuit management. The products could also support a variety of other net-centric applications for border or port security, Esposito said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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