News

Satellite technology tracks cargo across the globe

Release #111208-1 posted on Dec 8, 2011
111202-D-YC450-001  Radios and integrated chips are are some of the components inside at Satellite-Enabled Tracking and Intrusion Device. Photo by Christine Pesout, USTRANSCOM/PA

111202-D-YC450-001 Radios and integrated chips are are some of the components inside at Satellite-Enabled Tracking and Intrusion Device. Photo by Christine Pesout, USTRANSCOM/PA

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A Satellite-Enabled Tracking and Intrusion Detection tag’s plain, brick-like exterior belies the fascinating — and mission-critical — capabilities that lie within the device and the complex communication processes it completes. SETIDs (pronounced “set I-D”) provide troops on the ground the ability to track their cargo and gain general insight on cargo safety.

U.S. Transportation Command and its components began using SETID tags last year. Although SETID tags are currently expensive, they are vital in austere locations without existing infrastructure.

 

“Reliability is the key,” said Army Col. Steve Fraunfelter, chief of USTRANSCOM’s In-Transit Visibility Integration Division. “And in geographical areas where we cannot place active radio-frequency identification tags [which require nearby readers], SETIDs provide key bits of cargo tracking data including near real-time location, intrusion, light, humidity, and temperature for sensitive and high value cargo travelling through ‘high threat’areas.”

Inside a SETID is a battery compartment and circuit board. In addition, there are round-edged square chips, or antennas that send and receive information to and from satellites, a cellular phone system or other radio frequency sources (e.g., mesh networks).

On the reverse of the circuit board are several shiny radios, no bigger than a thumbnail.  Each radio listens to (receives) or sends (broadcasts) using different technologies, or waveforms. SETID programming can automatically select the least-cost communication route available. Some SETID tag manufacturers have added radios that communicate with active radio frequency identification tags and/or form ad-hoc networks among its brand of tags. 

 

All SETID tags have a Global Positioning System device. The GPS is another radio, one that “asks” for its position in relation to precisely positioned satellites and then calculates its earthly location using mathematics programmed into one of the antennas.

 

Transmissions to and from SETIDs involve satellites. The satellites include a piece of equipment called a transponder (short for “transmitter-responder”) which automatically receives a signal, amplifies it and then retransmits it on a different frequency. Translating the frequency of an incoming signal to a different frequency for the outgoing signal avoids interference between the two signals. Man-made satellites “talk” to a large number of ground, or Earth, stations.

Ground stations use one of two types of communications, usually based on SETID manufacturer’s license with a satellite carrier (or satellite constellation). One is called “bent pipe” which is a pass back and forth of data between a ground station and a SETID tag via a satellite, with any signal boosting (amplification) or translation (frequency shifting) done on Earth. The second is called “regenerative” and uses satellites as intermediaries between ground stations. Equipment on board the satellite boosts and translates the signal between ground stations.

 

The satellite constellation usually has many ground stations or hubs. These hubs have several displays that track satellites and can re-task (move, via limited propulsion subsystems) satellites for gentle corrections or in the event of major solar events.

A ground station listens (receives) and sends (broadcasts) information from a tag. SETID providers package the data and send it to the Department of Defense’s Global Exchange. DOD in-transit visibility systems subscribe to the GEX to obtain this data and use it according to their respective missions.  If the DOD needs to adjust speed at which a tag provides data (e.g., change the report rate from once every six hours to once every 15 minutes) the tag provider is notified and the ground station broadcasts the change to the tags.

 

To review: given an unauthorized opening of a SETID-tagged container somewhere en route, the following is a typical sequence of events.

 

–SETID tag detects intrusion and sends alert message to an Earth station by an appropriate channel

 

–Earth station sends alert data (including GPS information) to service provider

 

–Service provider packages data and sends it to the DOD GEX \

 

–DOD ITV system receives the data as dictated by its software program

 

Total time: usually less than 15 minutes. Response to the alert message depends on many factors; one of which is the physical location of the SETID (and therefore, cargo). It takes less than 10 minutes to turn off a SETID if requested by the DOD.

 

                                                         -USTRANCOM-

COMMENTS
"So, if we are able to handily pull down the data of where our shipments are and their status, what robust and assured technology methods are employed to preclude even redimentary cyber adversaries from obtaining the same info about all our important supplies? Being in 'the footprint' of a 'bent pipe' satcom signal, or the cell signal aspects of the transponders would permit essentially anyone to gain awareness of supply locations (even if detailed content data were encrypted). Bottom line for consideration: Use of this technology offers obvious utility and advantage to legitimate users - BUT how is OPSEC applied so the advantage isn't also offererd to an adversary who might be interested in knowing about status, locations or even interfering with our shipments?"
"Re; "The GPS is another radio, one that "asks" for its position in relation to precisely positioned satellites and then calculates its earthly location using mathematics programmed into one of the antennas." Well not really; this is almost completely incorrect for GPS except that it calculates a precise location."
"The article states that SETIDs will be used to improve ITV for "sensitive and high value cargo travelling through 'high threat'areas". Understandably, there will be limits to their use since cost will far exceed normal ITV methods. Question: Will the SETID tagging strategy be similar to guidelines outlined in current USC-06 contract (i.e., accessorial fee for 'Enhanced ITV Services')? Is there any DoD/TRANSCOM intent to direct Services to use SETID tags, or will their use be at the discretion of each Service?"
"The article states that SETIDs will be used to improve ITV for "sensitive and high value cargo travelling through 'high threat'areas". Understandably, there will be limits to their use since cost will far exceed normal ITV methods. Question: Will the SETID tagging strategy be similar to guidelines outlined in current USC-06 contract (i.e., accessorial fee for 'Enhanced ITV Services')? Is there any DoD/TRANSCOM intent to direct Services to use SETID tags, or will their use be at the discretion of each Service?"
"To InquiringMind: We prefer not to discuss security measures that are in place. To Commo321: Thank for your clarification. To DanS: That is a perfect question for SDDC G9 as they are the executors for EITV and SETID"
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