Radio-frequency-identification (RFID) electronics have often been considered a "low-end" form of wireless technology due to their widespread use for tagging and tracking retail. But the technology took a major step toward scientific respectability when the United States Department of Defense (DoD) required that its suppliers use RFID tags on shipments to military customers and installations. A news story in the current (September) issue of digital magazine Military Electronics (copies can be downloaded at www.mwrf.com) details the efforts on the part of the DoD's Defense Logistics Agency (DLA, www.dla.mil) to install RFID portals at various defense depots.

During the first year of the once-popular Wireless Symposium & Exhibition in 1993, several researchers from Australia came to San Jose, CA in search of information and presentations on RFID technology. That year, wireless technology was largely synonymous with cellular telephones and other wireless devices, such as RFID tags and readers, represented what were thought of as secondary markets. The Aussie researchers, for example, wanted to know more about applying RFID technology to livestock tracking and inventory—in particular, sheep herds.

The technology has long been a part of inventory efforts at large warehouses. As applications have spread to include even lower-cost retail items, large retail businesses such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Sears have adopted the use of RFID technology. Starting last year, the DoD has also adopted the technology as a way to improve its logistics and asset management. The DoD has used active RFID technology for more than a decade, including during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom on cargo and major items moving into battle. Passive RFID technology is now being used in selected distribution depot centers, such as the Defense Distribution Depot in Susquehanna, PA (DDSP).

The Department is planning to use RFID throughout its supply chain in the next few years. And it is requiring that suppliers be well versed in the technology if they wish to continue to do business with the DoD. The use of RFID is applied to four different classes of products, including packaged rations, clothing, tools, and weapon systems. In a recent pool of 11 bids for the contract, Odin Technologies (www.odintechnologies.com) was awarded the job of implementing passive RFID technology at all Defense Distribution Centers (more than 300 passive RFID portals). Patrick Sweeney, Odin's CEO, noted that RFID technology is coming on strong and that in the next five years, manufacturers may well have more RFID readers than telephones. Certainly, within the US military supply chain in the next few years, RFID readers will be easier to find.