Defense Department Schedules RFID Pilots

Packaged meals, chemical and biological warfare suits, and more will be tracked
The Department of Defense is planning four pilots to test passive radio-frequency identification technology, which it's requiring suppliers to deploy on cases and pallets they deliver to the department by January 2005. The tests, some of which will take place with suppliers, are scheduled to begin in February.

One pilot, which will place RFID tags on pallets and cases containing packaged meals when they arrive at a military depot in California, will test more sophisticated sensor technology that can document what happens to the products as they move through the supply chain. The benefits can be far greater than simply knowing where a pallet of items is. "You don't want to have milk sitting out in the heat for too long," and this could tell you if that's happened, says Alan Estevez, assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for supply-chain integration. With more data, suppliers also could limit recalls to affected items, he says.

Such applications add to RFID's value because they go beyond applying the technology just to meet a mandate, says Meta Group analyst Bruce Hudson. Instead, RFID can be used to solve a particular problem.

The department also plans to test RFID tags on chemical and biological warfare suits, as well as on supplies moving from military distribution centers to tactical forces. Another pilot will be conducted with suppliers tagging as-yet-unidentified items. The department hasn't picked the locations for these pilots yet.

Estevez admits the department must clear several hurdles for suppliers to be RFID-ready by the deadline, including addressing issues such as standards, costs, and integrating real-time data with back-end systems. Still, says Estevez, "we owe it to the soldier, sailor, or marine on the battlefield" to give them the best supply chain possible.