April 18, 2005
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Army Uses Wireless to Speed Communications Repairs

With U.S. forces stationed throughout the world, in low-infrastructure areas like Afghanistan and the Philippines, the U.S. Army relies heavily on satellite and large-antenna radio systems to keep communications flowing. The equipment used in these communications systems can be huge, and often require repairs from adverse conditions such as sand, dust, and cold as well as from attack or sabotage. Damaged equipment is often repaired in the U.S. at an Army depot such as the Tobyhanna depot in northeastern Pennsylvania, which is a full-service repair, overhaul, and fabrication facility part of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command.

Damaged or aging equipment is brought to the depot, then must often be disassembled for repairs and retrofit, resulting in hundreds or even thousands of parts that need to be tracked. (The typical antenna has about 28,000 parts, of which 8,000 are tracked during refurbishment and repair.) The depot's staff also must figure out what needs to be done with each part and determine how it flows through the various manufacturing, assembly, and machine shops then reintegrate the parts to rebuild the component so it can be sent back to the field. (Smaller parts are bagged together, then tagged.) Doing so is a gargantuan challenge, and if a part is misplaced or mislabeled, it can take hours and sometimes more than a day to find it, notes Sharon Smith, the depot's chief of research and analysis. Often, a piece is not noted as missing until it's needed, slowing down everything else. Already, "work leaders say it has widely eliminated looking for parts as part of their routine," she adds.

Because the U.S. military is now engaged in several parts of the world, with resources stretched thin, the Army decided it needed to speed up the repair process. So it is piloting at Tobyhanna the use of real-time location system (RTLS) tags, which are active transponders attached to equipment whose location can thus be tracked through an 802.11b wireless network enveloping the repair facilities. The Army has contracted with WhereNet to provide the tracking hardware and software system.

Tobyhanna is now five months into its pilot of the technology, which depot officials hope will reduce time spent on refurbishing equipment by 10%, Smith says. The technology will pay for itself with just a 1% time savings, and Smith is hoping for a 20% reduction. Plus, says Ronald Rains, Sr., the depot's automatic identification technology coordinator, the depot expects other savings from easier installation, since work managers will have a sense now of the flow of parts and can more easily redirect priorities before gaps or bottlenecks occur, as well as identify equipment that has sat untouched. They'll also be able to reduce damage to parts, such as by discovering quickly if any rust-prone equipment is outside when rain is forecast. And the wireless LAN used to monitor the parts is also being used to increase communications among work sites, increasing efficiencies there as well, Smith notes.

The depot did consider both bar codes and passive radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags, but both systems require a lot more infrastructure (scanners or access points) than the RTLS tags do, since those tags emit a signal on their own so need fewer radios to capture their signal. Both technologies were simply not suited for a large outdoor area such as the depot, which spreads out over millions of square feet. "This was the best solution," Raines says.

Got deployment experience and lessons to share? Let us know at news@it-wireless.com.

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