Marines tackle paperwork with wireless LAN

The U.S. Marines are famous for bringing everything they need with them to a hostile beach. Now they’ve begun bringing their networks, too.

Wireless LANs and rugged handheld computers are starting to make it easier for the Marines to track everything from office furniture and multifuel survival stoves, to machine guns and armoured amphibious landing craft.

The Marines have deployed a little more than 2,000 Spectrum24 wireless LAN access points and ruggedized handheld computers with built-in bar-code scanners, all from Symbol Technologies Inc., as part of the Automatic Identification Technology (AIT) project. AIT is a first step in turning the military’s notorious morass of paperwork into digitized data and a more automated inventory control system.

“The rationale is to get rid of human error,” says Capt. Gary Clement, AIT project officer with the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Va. Errors are easy to introduce when filling out paper forms. And they’re compounded when inventories are conducted daily, as at Marine armouries.

Another benefit is making these equipment checks much faster. “We haven’t done any formal studies, but we know it’s saving time,” Clement says.

The Suitcase

The project office has created a system that packs into a padded metal suitcase and can be lugged anywhere. Currently the wireless LAN is 802.11, which uses the older 2.4GHz frequency hopping radio, with a data rate of 2Mbps. At the time of the competitive bid for AIT, 11Mbps 802.11b products were not available. The Marines are looking ahead to upgrading to 802.11b because that is now a widely deployed industry standard.

The suitcase holds one wireless LAN access point and two of the Symbol PDT 7240 handhelds, which look like big, sawn-off automatic pistols with a computer display about the size of a paperback glued on top. Also neatly packed away are a portable bar-code printer, spare batteries and printer ribbons, manuals, docking stations, cables and power cords – in short, everything needed to set up and run a small wireless LAN at a dock, a vehicle park, a warehouse or aboard ship.

For now, the system is not intended to be used on battlefields because inventory control under fire is not a top priority. But Clement says he expects the systems will move closer to the sound of gunfire over time.

Moving Quickly

Using the handhelds, Marines can move quickly around sprawling warehouses, supply depots, docks and ships, accurately scanning the bar codes on every piece of equipment, cargo container or vehicle. Increasingly, these tags are so-called 2D bar codes, which can store more than a thousand characters of data, compared with just 20 in supermarket bar codes, Clement says. As a result, the 2D tags can identify when, and from where, an item was shipped or even who last used it.

The handhelds send the data over wireless LAN link to a local laptop, where software applications sift it, store it in a laptop database, analyse it and create reports. Depending on the location and the communications facilities, the data can be sent to other, consolidating databases, such as the Global Transportation Network.

Eventually, Clement says, the wireless LANs will be linked much more tightly with back-end databases. The result will be a military equivalent of several applications common in enterprise resource planning systems. Security is being upgraded by phasing in use of the government encryption standard known as FIPS 140, Clement says.

In the future, the wireless AIT system will be used for manifesting the troops themselves: Tags will include identification numbers, blood type and other personnel data, and let the Marines keep track of who gets on and off helicopters and landing craft.

For now, Clement says, AIT is focused on what he calls the “three E’s.” “We’re trying to make this efficient, effective and easy to use,” he says.

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