Welcome to RFID 24-7

DOD tests RFID to monitor food items shipped to troops during combat

05/23/11 | John R. Johnson | email

The U.S. Department of Defense is testing RFID with the hope of using the technology to get more nutritious foods into the hands of U.S. troops involved in critical missions overseas.

Long an innovator when it comes to RFID, the DOD's latest use case involves tagging First Strike Rations, a compact, eat-on-the-move assault ration designed for use by soldiers during periods of highly intense and mobile combat operations, such as those in Afghanistan.

The DOD has enlisted a team of researchers at the University of South Florida Polytechnic's College of Technology and Innovation Lab to develop a system to predict the shelf life of packaged FSR meals and to monitor their quality during shipment and storage. Eventually, more than 5,000 pallets of FSRs could carry RFID tags. The DOD will also consider tagging more than a million pallets of MREs.

Phase two of the project, which began in April and will run for 18 months, will study food science issues like how high temperatures in storage depots break down the nutritional value of FSR's. During phase one, which began in 2009, researchers tested hundreds of temperature sensitive tags and developed a system that uses a Motorola hand-held reader and software to interrogate an RFID tag and determine the quality of food items and its remaining shelf life. Researchers have recommended a tag from Intelleflex for the project, although they will continue to study new tag technologies that emerge over the next 18 months.

"Shelf life is dynamic. It depends on the temperature of storage," says Dr. Ismail Uysal, a post-doctoral researcher and one of 10 CTI researchers working on the project. "Some of these products will be stored in Iraq or Afghanistan, where warehouse temperatures can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The hotter the temperature, the quicker the food quality declines."

The research team is conducting tests by tagging pallets of First Strike Rations (FSRs), which were first developed in 2002 and began shipping to troops in 2007. A single FSR, which contains 24 hours worth of food, is approximately half the size and weight of three MREs. The typical shelf life for FSRs is two years, stored at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Seven cases of FSRs -- which include items like pocket sandwiches, cereal bars, applesauce and beef jerky -- provide a one day supply of food for 63 soldiers.

Uysal says that the system has been developed to the point where the DOD could put a pilot into place at any time if it chooses to do so. "If they wanted to implement a pilot tomorrow in the actual FSR supply chain they could," he says. "The technology is there. It's a closed loop system. We are just on the research side of this. But the technology is there."

The CTI Lab continues to test the technology within its internal labs. The research doesn't involve shipping actual product through the DOD supply chain, but utilizes the lab's temperature chambers to simulate temperature conditions that FSRs will likely be stored in.

The DOD, meanwhile, will benefit from increased food quality and safety, which can translate into peak performance for soldiers. Away from the battle lines, the DOD's current quality control system requires a person to spend 10 to 15 minutes inspecting each pallet for food quality. RFID technology can cut the time to 10 to 15 seconds, reducing labor time and eliminating waste.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Emond, dean of the College of Technology and Innovation, says that the research being conducted for the DOD will also benefit consumer food safety and supply chains in the future.

"The knowledge gained can be readily transferred to the commercial sector with consequent benefits to the nation's food supply," he says, "from fewer rejected deliveries and availability of better quality food to consumers. In any commercial supply chain using temperature-sensitive products ranging from fresh produce to pharmaceuticals, the proposed solution will be invaluable to prevent losses, increase customer satisfaction, and promote smart transportation practices for improved product distribution and management."

The government has long been one of the biggest and most innovative users of RFID. According to VDC Research, the government – led by the DOD – accounted for tag sale revenue of $457.5 million in 2010, a number that is expected to reach $520 million this year. (VDC also includes figures from the aerospace industry in the government category). Government and aerospace use of EPC UHF tags is expected to increase at an annual rate of nearly 70 percent between now and 2015. In 2010, 136 million units were sold into the sector, totaling $19.3 million in revenue for tag suppliers. Unit volume will increase to 244.5 units this year, reaching 1.5 billion in 2015.

Additional activity in supply chain and asset tracking is driving much of the growth, as is the fact that more suppliers are tagging product. Roughly 70 percent of the products received by DOD depots carry RFID tags, although that doesn't mean that 70 percent of suppliers are tagging products.

Drew Nathanson, director of research operations at VDC, says that the government market is moving quickly into Gen 2 UHF tags. "The government market has been big for active tags," he says, "but there is a big movement to use more passive, so you are starting to see Gen 2 passive tags coming into play in lot of areas where its been active in the past. The government is one of the leading sectors when it comes to innovation. They are a pioneer and have a lot of money, so it's easy for them to develop new applications. The DOD has been a hotbed of innovation, and when you support a military or government contract there are incentives to have that commercialized as well."

Speaking at RFID Journal last month, Paul Peters, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Supply Chain Integration for DOD, said he expects the use of RFID will continue to accelerate. "I believe the expansion of RFID in the DOD will in fact accelerate similar to what it did through the first five years of this journey," he said.

click to jump to top

For more information:

RFID 24-7 ©2008 · all rights reserved · sign up for our email newsletter

website by Fat Cat Design · last updated Mon Aug 29 2011