Since it began using parachutes in 1943, the U.S. Army has tracked and managed the equipment via manual methods that are labor-intensive, error-prone and susceptible to malicious tampering. In the early 2000s, the Army reclassified personal parachute systems, as well as other aerial-delivery equipment used by military personnel. Requiring that these items be managed using individual serial numbers. But serial number management would require an automated solution in order to be effective.

To address this challenge, the Army’s Automated Identification and Movement Solutions (AMIS) division, in Alexandria, Va., created an enhanced Parachute Tracking System (ePTS) that employs radio frequency identification to provide end-to-end, verifiable chain-of-custody accountability, traceability and airworthiness of a sophisticated new family of personal parachute systems in support of global military operations. This enables the Army to view and manage main and reserve parachute processes, such as warehousing, inventory, packing, shipping, jumping and recovery.

Testing and operation

The ePTS pilot went live in November 2012, and remains in operation today at the 11th Quartermaster parachute pack and issue facilities at Fort Bragg, N.C. The largest of 42 facilities handling military parachutes, according to Bryan Keys, program management support specialist at AMIS. The new method provides a way to improve efficiency, fidelity and safety in managing and maintaining parachutes, he says. The RFID solution will soon be rolled out at all the other locations.

In April 2008, AMIS product director Jim Alexander and other managers set out to find a solution for tracking parachutes. They concluded that an automatic identification technology (AIT) was required that would perform equally well whether a parachute was packed or unpacked. When a parachute is packed, Keys explains, its identifying labels are easily accessed. Although, for an unpacked parachute, personnel must search for the label in order for it to be read.

Based on this and other criteria, managers decided that a passive RFID system would best meet the Army’s needs. Passive RFID tags could be read through parachute bags as the parachutes were unpacked. While satisfying identification needs by providing a unique electronic ID number for each parachute.

“Other AIT, such as bar codes, could not be utilized, as line-of-sight visibility would be lost when the T-11 [parachute] was in a packed status,” Keys states. “Active RFID could meet the performance requirements. However, cost avoidance dictated that passive RFID would be the preferred solution.”