US defence works to resolve RFID standards issue

The Pentagon is working to develop radio frequency identification tag standards.

The US Defense Department (DOD) wants a writeable, passive RFID tag with a data store larger than the 96 bits used in existing commercial tags, and believes it can work out any standards issues it has "in a matter of months", according to Alan Estevez, assistant deputy under secretary of defence, supply chain integration.

Estevez said the Pentagon is working with EPCglobal to develop radio frequency identification (RFID), tag standards that can be incorporated into the International Standards Organisation standards it wants to use. His comments came the day after the Pentagon held its RFID Industry Summit with suppliers. 

EPCglobal is a joint venture between Uniform Code Council in the US and EAN International in Brussels. 

The Pentagon wants RFID tags that are capable of "multiple reads and writes" and with a larger data store to accommodate its unique identification number on "high value" parts or goods costing more than $5,000, Estevez said. He added that the Class 1, Version 2 EPC tag that Wal-Mart Stores wants to use in its supply chain should "accommodate" most of the DOD's requirements. 

Although the standards process is complex, Estevez said he is "fairly confident" that the department, EPC and ISO can develop a common standard quickly. Though he did not specify tag costs - Wal-Mart has said it would like to see tags costing 5 cents each - Estevez said volume use by DOD, Wal-Mart and their respective supply chains should drive down costs. 

Mike Liard, an analyst at Venture Development, said he believed the EPCglobal Class 1, Version 2 tag will eventually be incorporated into ISO standards. That would alleviate the costly problem that suppliers to both the DOD and Wal-Mart have said they would face if the two organisations use different standards. 

Liard said that both Wal-Mart and the Pentagon would reap economic gains from using the Class 1, Version 2 tag. Both Texas Instruments and Philips are gearing up to produce the Version 2 tag in large numbers. That, in turn, promises greater economies of scale than the Class 1 tags the agency intends to use in its pilot programs which are produced by Alien Technology in California. 

Estevez declined to say how much the infrastructure to support RFID in the Pentagon's supply chain - including readers in warehouses and supply depots - will cost. But he did say "reader costs are plummeting". 

Mike Wills, vice president at Friday Intermec Technologies said the agency's infrastructure requirements would be "fertile ground" for RFID hardware suppliers such as his company. Wills declined to estimate the DOD's cost for adding RFID tags, saying only, "it will have a lot of zeros in it". 

Wills noted that the Pentagon will need more handheld RFID readers than Wal-Mart since military supply depots are often outdoors. 

Bob Brewin writes for IDG News Service

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