Paris The war in Iraq has created the first opportunity for the U.S. military to use RFID technology to track combat casualties. An RFID chip sewn into the wristbands of naval personnel is helping to track and identify the wounded arriving for treatment at a field hospital in southern Iraq.
Medical data stored in the radio-frequency identification chips can travel with wounded seamen, and data can be read by RFID-enabled handheld devices to identify each patient. The RFID technology also allows doctors to add, change or create new triage records on the chip, said companies that helped develop the system.
Although its use is currently limited to a medical facility, the U.S. military is reportedly interested in exploring much broader RFID applications, including embedding an RFID chip in soldiers' dog tags to track individuals on the battlefield; to warn and monitor those going in and out of chemical or biological hot zones; and for munitions tracking and supply chain management.
Technologies used in the U.S. Navy's combat casualty care come from several companies. ScenPro Inc. (Richardson, Texas) developed the overall Tactical Medical Coordination System used in the Navy's Fleet Hospital Three in Iraq. Texas Instruments Inc. supplied the TI-RFid Tag-it smart-label inlays, which are finished transponders based on the company's RFID chips. Precision Dynamics Corp. (San Fernando, Calif.) manufactured wristbands embedding the transponders. And ACC Systems Inc. (Glen Head, N.Y.) provided handheld RFID readers.
TI's RFid Tag-it smart-label inlays operate at 13.56 MHz, compliant with the ISO15693 standard. This "standards-based, passive tag" has no built-in batteries, so it's designed to draw power from an RFID reader device, said Bill Allen, marketing and communications manager at Texas Instruments' RFID group. "They are commercially available, off-the-shelf products," and have not been altered, he said.
TI's Tag-it chip allows the reading and writing of data at a distance of 6 inches from the RFID reader. The chip can store 2 kbits of information, "enabling one sector of memory to store a unique identification number, using another sector on the injury record and yet another page for keeping the data on the triage treatment," Allen said.
A major problem in battlefield medicine is "losing a clipboard or a chart" when transferring wounded soldiers from one location to another, Allen said. "The RFID technology eliminates this human error factor."
Neither the military nor TI is disclosing how many RFID transponder modules the Navy has requested for this application. However, a Navy news dispatch reports that Fleet Hospital Three in Iraq has treated more than 500 patients, both U.S. military personnel and Iraqi civilians, and performed more than 280 surgeries thus far (www.news.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=7056).
The military has also deployed wireless LANs in Iraq to transfer patient information collected in the RFID tags to an electronic patient-management system. The networks were designed to eliminate the need to manually reenter data in a central computer.
Now the Navy is exploring the use of the Tactical Medical Coordination System by medics in the field. When deployed, the system could, in theory, quickly identify injured personnel and record the types of treatment they receive. Using the readers' GPS capabilities, information could be communicated back to base to expedite care and improve resource deployment.
ScenPro, whose business is developing solutions for the Military Health Service based on RFID technology, will continue to design systems that "can help track casualties, first responders, blood supplies and medical equipment," said Brian Jones, ScenPro's vice president. Both the Army and Air Force have expressed interest in using RFID technology, he said.
ScenPro has already developed a number of software modules for the emergency-response and medical-surveillance community, Jones said, including versions designed for early warning and detection of possible biological hazards.
The company's Geographical Information System mapping tools, for example, can assist a commander in deploying and monitoring resources to the site of an incident and can help public-health officials to conduct epidemiological analysis.
Precision Dynamics, a pioneer of automatic identification technology, introduced the first patient bar code ID wristband in 1984 and RFID wristbands in 2000. RFID technology has also been used to tag theme park visitors, TI's Allen said. The most widespread use for this technology, however, has been in tagging merchandise and other goods for distribution.