Researchers try to build a better RFID reader

Jan. 1, 2005
OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - The new year marks the dawn of new technology in military logistics.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. - The new year marks the dawn of new technology in military logistics.

Pentagon leaders are requiring radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags for most materials delivered to the U.S. Department of Defense after Jan. 1, 2005. That order today applies only to food, clothing, repair parts, and weapons components, but will grow to include everything else by Jan. 1, 2007.

RFID tags come in two flavors - active and passive. Passive tags are inexpensive and have no batteries, so users must hold a tag reader within three meters of the target. In contrast, active tags cost more but use onboard batteries to beam data to distant data readers up to 100 meters away.

Today, cost-conscious shippers use passive tags for everything but 40-foot shipping containers and valuable items like battlefield vehicles.

In the meantime, researchers are looking for ways to drive costs down on active tracking systems.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tenn., announced in November they are working with Spectrum Signal Processing of Columbia, Md., to design a suite of multi-purpose, software-­defined, RFID readers.

The new readers will use the Software Communications Architecture (SCA) to interoperate with Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) devices, prevent jamming, and ensure data security.

Workers could use this reader - also called an interrogator - to track military assets in both hostile and non-hostile environments and to monitor the location and condition of cargo containers. Customers could include workers in military logistics, homeland security, and commercial transportation.

Specifically, Oak Ridge researchers will design the new reader for use in three main programs. The first program is called CFAST, or the Collaborative Force-Building Analysis, Sustainment, and Transportation system. This is a military information portal that military leaders will use to share information on operations, intelligence, logistics, and personnel. This data will originate from secure, active RFID technologies. For more information, see

The second program is NEMAS, or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) Emergency Management and Accountability System, which tracks first responders during emergency situations, using secure active radio-frequency identification tags and interrogators. For more information, see

The third program is MTS, or the Marine Transportation System, from Oak Ridge and at Navigational Sciences Inc. Logistics companies will use MTS to track marine cargo containers anywhere in the world, and ensure that compromised containers do not threaten homeland security. For more information, see

“One of ORNL’s main objectives is to enable total asset visibility (TAV) across the U.S. armed forces and emergency first responders through the use of multi-function RFID readers and innovative sensor technologies,” says Mark Buckner, senior program manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“To achieve TAV in as short a timeframe as possible, we are employing advanced, commercially available products and technologies. Spectrum provides us with proven software defined radio solutions along with the SCA know-how critical to ensure that our systems are interoperable with JTRS platforms.”

Oak Ridge planners bought a Spectrum SDR-3000 system in July, and will now use it to advance the state of the art in active RFID. Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a science and technology laboratory managed for the U.S. Department of Energy by UT-Battelle LLC. For more information, see

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