Australian Defence Force RFID trial heads to Iraq

Australia’s Defence Material Organization (DMO) and Lockheed Martin Tuesday released the first active Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag from Australia into the Middle East Area of Operations.

The RFID network for defense logistics systems will revolutionize the in-transit visibility of stores and equipment transported throughout the supply chain, according to Brigadier David McGahey.

Defence is rolling out a leading edge “Track and Trace” system to enable automated tracking of stores and equipment through the supply chain anywhere in the world.

“It will provide near real time automated tracking from the time the stores are consigned in the warehouse until they are delivered to the area of operations,” McGahey said.

The deployment of RFID technology through “Track and Trace” is a foundational element of the Joint Project (JP) 2077 program that will culminate in the delivery of a world-first Military Integrated Logistic Information System (MILIS) over the next three years.

“JP2077 2C represents an important step towards the delivery of a purpose-built Integrated in-transit visibility system,” McGahey said.

“The “Track and Trace” capability will provide a number of significant benefits to Defence including reduced in-theatre handling requirements, automated tracking updates at multiple points along the supply chain, more accurate measurement of transit time, and the ability to rapidly locate consignments in transit areas.”

“Track and Trace” uses active, battery-powered RFID tags on pallets and containers and is part of a global agreement with defense partners including the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

It will be interoperable with other RFID-based in-transit visibility networks.

Last year the Australian Defence Force (ADF) announced plans to radically upgrade its worldwide logistics operations by undertaking a A$20 million (US$16.5 million) pilot project that will see RFID technology rolled out in more than two dozen locations around the globe.

Under the scope of the project, RFID tags – which use wireless signals to write and read small amounts of data onto tiny microchips that can be stuck onto all kinds of items – will be attached to pallets the Defence Materiel Organization’s logistics division uses.

As the logistics provider for the whole of the Australian Defence Force, DMO accounts for 32 percent of Australia’s entire Defence budget.

Tasked with supplying everything from paper clips to missiles, the organization manages the movement of around A$4 billion worth of inventory – and A$2.5 billion worth of explosive munitions – across more than 50 physical locations in Australia and overseas.

Because of often tenuous supply chain links and delivery delays, multiple orders and poor visibility of the contents of shipping containers have made it a nightmare for troops to locate specific items in incoming shipments.

Wastage has long been a major problem among military forces: the US Army, for example, sent more than 42,000 containers of supplies to Gulf War troops – but half of those containers were unlabelled and many contained items that weren’t even required by troops.

This isn’t ADF’s first RFID pilot, but it is the largest.

Ultimately, the test will dovetail into a larger effort: the complete rewriting of its In-Transit Visibility system. Computerworld Australia first reported the ADF was investigating the use of RFID tags back in 2003.

At the time an ADF spokeswoman said Australia was seeking to emulate RFID supply chain initiatives being undertaken by the US Department of Defence.

In the U.S. the Defense Department mandated suppliers use RFID tags as far back as 2005.

At the same time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has plans to begin testing whether radio frequency identification technology can survive in outer space.

The test is the first step in an effort to determine whether RFID chips could be used in a manned mission to Mars.

Fred Schramm, administrator for the internal research and development program at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, said a variety of paper and plastic RFID tags will be on board the U.S. space shuttle Endeavor, which is slated to launch in July on a voyage to the International Space Station.

The Gen 2 passive RFID chips will be stored in a case attached to the outside of the station and left there for about a year to determine how they are affected by atmospheric conditions, Schramm said. In the test, the chips will be exposed to the extreme heat and cold, ultraviolet radiation and near-vacuum that exist in low orbit, he said.

After the test, NASA will determine whether the weight of RFID chips used in the experiment could cause problems in a space mission; whether the atmospheric conditions will degrade tags so they can’t be used; and which materials, such as silicon or copper, work best in space, he said.

If those tests are successful, Schramm said the technology will be further evaluated on a rocket that is scheduled to take off in 27 months to conduct tests for a future planned moon launch. “Most things that will work with the moon will work with Mars, and we’re working with the moon in mind,” he noted.

“If you think of the moon, that’s not very far — it’s only a few days away. But Mars is 34 million miles away,” Schramm said. “If you think of going to Mars, you carry a lot of stuff with you.”

– with Marc L. Songini

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