AFGET's got the goods

2008 GCN Award winner: Communications group at Robins shows what RFID technology can do

Communications Group, Robins
Air Force Base.

PROJECT: Air Force Global
Enterprise Tracking.

CHALLENGE: Track thousands of
tools and parts involved in running
maintenance operations at
Robins Air Force Base so that
they can be quickly located.

SOLUTION: RFID tags used with
centralized tracking software,
accessed via a Web interface.

IMPACT: Major savings in staff
time, more rapid completion of
maintenance operations.

DURATION: Two years.

THE PAPER CLIP is famous as an invention that doesn't get
a lot of oohs and ahhs but that nevertheless has made life easier
for millions of people.

In similar fashion, the Air Force Global Enterprise Tracking
(AFGET) project at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., hasn't
introduced any knock-'em-dead new products, but it has put
radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies to use in a way
that has produced major savings in staff time and maintenance

The original idea and the implementation came from the 78th
Communications Group's Automatic Identification Technologies
(AIT) office. It was designed to provide support for locating and
inventorying items at Robins Air Force Base.

Bernard Lannan, supervisor of the 78th Communications Group,
described the type of situation the AFGET program was designed to
deal with. 'You've got thousands of maintenance workers
crawling all over aircraft,' Lannan, said. 'You get on
top of an aircraf, and it takes you 10 minutes to get there, and
all of a sudden you've got to have another tool.'

Before AFGET, 'everything was done manually,' said
Barbara Buller, an AIT project manager. 'A lot of people were
involved with hunting and searching when they needed to find
certain assets.' Whether it was a piece of equipment due for
maintenance, a tool needed for a job or a vehicle, personnel would
have to physically go search for it.

With AFGET, the equipment, tools and vehicles are all tagged
with RFID devices. The data received from the RFID devices is
triangulated so that a device's location can be identified
within five to 10 feet. When staff members need to locate a device,
they go to a computer and access the AFGET Web interface.

'With the tracking system, now we can type in the
equipment ID, and it shows us on a map its location,' said
Jeffrey Hunter, a mechanical engineer and AFGET functional point of
contact for the 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Group.
'We're not wasting time now on tracking down

Cynthia Gunter, chief of software sustainment and one of the
original AFGET team members, said the project started small.
'Our first pilot project was tracking gyroscopes, which are
relatively expensive pieces of equipment,' she said.
'They need to be maintained to exact standards and, in the
process, they move around a bit.'

AFGET now tracks more than 15,000 assets, and project leaders
expect that it will be expanded to handle more than 50,000 items.
The system records the current location of assets and a history of
where they have been.

The system employs a combination of active and passive RFID
devices and Global Positioning System devices for collecting data.
The data is translated by custom software for incorporation into a
centralized database and is accessed via a Web interface.

The history of assets' locations can be useful, said David
Carrick, another AIT program manager. If, for example, three
generators out of a fleet of 10 haven't moved in months, that
might indicate that not so many generators need to be maintained in
the inventory.

The devil in the details

Although AFGET is functioning smoothly now, there were a few
kinks to work out before launching the system. The first thing team
members realized when they started their work two years ago was
that they couldn't rely on a single provider of RFID

'We found that vendors say that their devices can do
everything, but that's not always true,' Gunter said.
'In fact, we found that different devices work differently in
different environments. If we could take the best features of each
vendor's device and mash it into one device it would be

In similar fashion, the team realized that it would be unwise to
use a single vendor's data storage solution. 'We also
found that it is very important to have a centralized database that
isn't tied to any vendor,' Gunter said. Instead, the
team writes translation layers to incorporate the data from each
device into AFGET's centralized database.

The most obvious benefit is in time savings for personnel. The
time required to locate equipment has in some cases 'gone
from days to seconds,' Buller said.

And AFGET has been expanding. 'We've found we can
apply it to maintenance vehicles, we can apply to ground support
equipment, we can apply to a number of different things. All of a
sudden the spin-off candidates start coming out of the
woodwork,' Lannan said. 'For us to be able to
facilitate knowing where all the tools are, knowing where all
equipment is, knowing where all the vehicles are is part and parcel
of all of the benefits that we bring to a multibilliondollar
aircraft depot repair facility.'

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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