Finding the target

When the UK government ordered a force of Harrier jump jets to Kandahar, Afghanistan in August 2004, getting the aircraft into the air was an easy task. But according to wing commander Andy Read, in charge of engineering support for frontline squadrons at the fighters’ RAF Cottesmore base, the frustrating and time-consuming job was locating on base, and sending off, all the necessary spare parts, equipment and aircraft test kits.

‘Everybody was maxed out trying to make this happen in the time scale we had to do it in,’ Read said. ‘We didn’t need to waste time running around trying to find things, but that’s what happened. As it happens, it had no impact on the overall operation, but the lesson that we identified from this deployment was that we needed to work much smarter here.’

Since then, the RAF has indeed been ‘working smarter’, by using asset tracking technology to manage 1,200 high-value and critical items, including fuel tanks and missile launchers, replacement parts for aircraft, and test kits that determine if aircraft are working properly.

These items have been tagged with active radio frequency ID (RFID) devices sewn inside orange ‘remove before flight’ flags, traditionally used to identify parts on an aircraft.

The RFID system was implemented in June by defence and security systems specialist Qinetiq, as part of a six-month proof-of-concept project for the Harrier Integrated Project Team (IPT), the group in charge of servicing Harrier GR7s.

RFID active tags are attached to items distributed across several large areas at RAF Cottesmore’s Rutland base. These areas include four hangers, divided into 16 zones with their own RFID reader, each of which can read a tag from 100m away.

Active tags are located by triangulation. The strength of the signal received by each reader depends on its distance from each individual RFID tag. ‘If you have three readers, the closest tag has the higher radio strength signal indicator (RSSI),’ said Will Damerell, technical sales manager for Qinetiq’s RFID systems.

‘The system software will look at the reader bit and determine which tag is closest to which reader. The readers in the software are assigned an area, and from knowing that value you can say: “actually, my ladder or that kit is in the bottom left hand corner of this segment or zone within the hanger itself”.’

RAF Cottesmore’s system uses RFID readers and 433MHz active tags from UK-based RFID manufacturer Wavetrend Technologies. The tags carry a unique 32-bit alphanumeric code that holds information on the item to which they are attached.

The RFID readers are connected via an ethernet network. Information on each tag is transmitted from each remote building over a wi-fi bridge back to the base’s central server, which is monitored by an asset tracking team.

This project comes at a time when the Ministry of Defence is figuring out ways to cut costs and streamline maintenance operations throughout all branches of the military.

So far, those at RAF Cottesmore believe the RFID system is proving its cost benefit. RFID active tags, which have a lifespan of five years and cost £15-£20 each, are ensuring the location of pieces of equipment worth £50,000-£100,000.

The RFID system is also minimising the risk of environmental damage to kit, because it is now easier to determine if equipment has been improperly left outside.

However, most importantly to a base in the business of rapid deployment of air power to anywhere in the world, the RFID system saves time. Squadrons no longer need to spend hours looking for lost or misplaced equipment. All they have to do is dial up the site’s asset tracking team to find out when a piece of equipment entered a zone, how long it was there and what time it left.

The Cottesmore team argues that as well as saving the RAF time and money, the system also saves manpower. In addition to the challenge of running operations on a tighter budget, the military is learning to operate with reductions in armed forces personnel. The RAF in particular is in the process of being cut down from just over 50,000 people in 2005 to its ultimate goal of 41,000 by 2008.

So as Read pointed out, the RFID system could not have come to RAF Cottesmore at a more needed time. ‘This is all about levering technology to allow us to do our job with fewer people,’ he said.