Keeping Track

Radio frequency technology takes off in the federal world of supply and demand.

Federal agencies have deployed radio frequency identification technology to manage their assets, tracking everything from seagoing containers to paper medical files, and even to determine how fast a letter moves through the international postal system.

RFID technology uses readers that beam a radio signal to gather information from data tags, which come in two flavors - active and passive. Active tags, used by the Defense Department to track large containers, are powered by an internal battery, allowing them to initiate communication and hold data that can be rewritten or modified and transmitted over a distance of about 300 feet. Passive RFID tags have a shorter range, about 30 feet, and get their operating power from the reader. Data on a passive tag typically is read-only, which means the tag cannot be modified.

In January the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection directorate awarded a $62 million contract to Unisys to equip 380 traffic lanes at 39 of the nation's busiest border crossings, which process an average of 850,000 travelers a day with RFID technology and license plate readers. It's one of the largest passive RFID projects in federal government.

As of June 1, 2009, U.S. citizens crossing land or sea borders will be required to carry an RFID travel document issued by the State Department as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Kelly Klundt, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said the agency has launched an aggressive construction and deployment schedule to meet the deadline.

As of mid-June, State had received 350,000 applications for RFID-equipped passport cards, which look like driver's licenses. And two states, Washington and New York, have started issuing enhanced driver's licenses equipped with RFID chips for border crossings.

The new travel documents are designed to tighten security at U.S. land borders, but that's not the only benefit. "Deploying RFID will be a tremendous step in helping reduce congestion and long lines," says Paul Morris, CBP's director for admissibility and passenger programs. Klundt says RFID should shave seconds off the time it takes a CBP officer to process a vehicle. At busy crossings such as Nogales, Ariz., or Blaine, Wash., that amounts to a considerable amount of time over the course of a day, she adds.

Readers installed at every border lane will scan passport cards or enhanced driver's licenses and pop up detailed information on an officer's screen before a vehicle even gets to the checkpoint, Klundt says. The technology has raised privacy concerns, but Klundt notes that the chips contain no personal information - only an identifier that can be matched with records in a CBP database.

Tracking Military Supplies

As of January 2007, contractors will be required to put passive RFID tags on practically everything Defense buys by the case or pallet. The U.S. Transportation Command plans to spend $744 million to integrate RFID into the entire Defense supply chain by 2015.

Along with the mandate on suppliers, Defense is working to expand RFID technology to its internal supply chains. The Defense Logistics Agency installed readers at 19 distribution facilities in 2006, but only a few are at the base or facility level.

The Military Health System plans to launch a pilot RFID deployment at three hospitals in Washington this fall to track medical supplies. DeWitt Army Community Hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., will use handheld readers from ThingMagic and Motorola to transmit data to its logistics information system.

Owens & Minor of Richmond, Va., which carries in its inventory about 90 percent of the surgical supplies MHS buys, will tag items such as dressings, gowns and sutures so a receiving clerk can scan a pallet or case to match its contents with the order data stored in the Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support system.

If the test is successful, MHS plans to deploy RFID to 63 hospitals and 105 clinics worldwide.

The Navy turned on its first passive RFID operation in August to receive and distribute repair parts from the Defense Logistics Agency facility in Honolulu with readers supplied by Alien Technology. The project will be expanded to another 35 facilities in fiscal 2009.

And in an innovative use of passive tags, 3M completed installation in June of its RFID Smart Shelf System at Fort Hood, Texas, to help locate medical files stored at six clinics on the base. The Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center awarded the $3.76 million contract to test the use of adhesive RFID tags on 150,000 file folders, which can be located through antennas placed on their storage shelves.

The Army started using active RFID in 1993, but the technology came into its own during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. This year, Defense boosted its RFID contract awarded to Savi Technology Inc. in 2003 by $60 million, to $483 million.

In the Mail

While Defense's use of active RFID has high visibility, the U.S. Postal Service has been using the technology just as long. One of the world's largest active RFID networks is used by the International Postal Corporation, an organization composed of the 23 largest postal operations around the globe.

The network employs about 15,000 active RFID readers provided by Lyngsoe Systems of Denmark at international mail hubs such as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The readers track 500,000 RFID tags inserted in test letters mailed to track the speed of international mail. Clayton Bonnell, the Postal Service's program manager for intelligent mail, says the technology and the metrics it provides has resulted in a tremendous improvement in the delivery of international mail.