A world of interconnected everything is just around the corner, and the military wants a piece of the action.
Global investment in the internet of things, or IoT, will top $15 trillion by 2025, according to analysts at Business Insider. The Defense Logistics Agency estimates more than 20 billion IoT devices will be in use by 2020 in homes, businesses and government, and the agency sees a military opportunity in this coming wave of connected devices.
“IoT is not just hardware for the sake of hardware, It’s a way to capture more data, and we can have an enormous number of potential uses for that,” said Air Force Maj Ricky Dickens, deputy program manager for the Distribution Modernization Program (DMP) at the Defense Logistics Agency. The modernization program is looking to leverage IoT in support of war-fighter needs.
From a logistics perspective, IoT offers the possibility of giving planners deeper, more consistent insight into the location of needed equipment and supplies. It starts with an effort to deploy electronic tags to make materials on the move more readily visible to automated tracking.
“We are look at passive RFID tags and Bluetooth tags, different technologies that can give us better visibility on our material as they make their way through our facilities and our processes,” Dickens said.
Such a capability speaks directly to issues of force readiness.
“We are looking to tag commonly used equipment like forklifts. If management could see that they had four forklifts in the building, they could bring two back over here in order to better manage their resources,” Dickens said.
IoT-based tracking could help the military to better manage the flow of the tens of thousands of items — from guns to tanks to uniforms — that are in transit daily among forces positioned around the globe.
“As material goes through our facilities we want to see where things are bottling up, where there are process chokepoints and inefficiencies that can eliminate,” Dickens said.
“You can see where your faster-moving items are and where your slower-moving items are. You can do efficiency studies to see time for moving material based on where it is located in the warehouse and then you can make better decisions about how things are distributed in your facilities.”
As DLA looks to IoT to enhance logistics, the military is takings its cues from the private sector.
Analysts at Market Research Engine expect the market for logistics-related IoT to be worth $10 billion by 2022. Ahead of retail, automotive and healthcare, the analysts identify aerospace and defense as the top emerging end-user of these capabilities.
“What’s exciting in industry is that they already have this base of IoT and equipment providing more data. The analysis they can do is astounding,” Dickens said.
“Some industries are using artificial intelligence to network with this data to see underlying information that isn’t readily available, and some of the outcomes have been game-changers for industry.”
DLA’s own early implementations include pilot projects slated to deploy soon at Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, Texas, and at Anniston Army Depot in Bynum, Alabama. “We are going to roll out a real-time location system to be able to provide more visibility into the materials stored at those locations,” Dickens said.
At Anniston the system will be used to track a vast inventory of small arms, while at Red River the system will be used to help manage outdoor vehicle storage. “There are tens of thousands of vehicles there over multiple square miles,” Dickens said. As DLA implements an IoT approach over the coming months, facility operators should gain a much finer-grain view of that operation.
In the long term, DLA officials say they would like to incorporate some 12,000 commercial suppliers into their IoT-based approach, covering everything “from windows to bolts to air compressors,” Dickens said. Whether, or when, that will happen depends largely on the shifting price of these emerging technologies.
“We need to see the pricing curve come down. There is a lot of technology out there but right now it can be very expensive, especially when you consider the scale of DoD operations: We manage 6 million line-items,” Dickens said.
“There will have to be a business-case analysis so we are not putting $10 sensors on 5 cent bolts.”