The best choice was in the cards

Before settling on smart cards, the Air Force considered alternative automated systems for its Standard Asset Tracking System (SATS), including bar code scanners and magnetic stripe cards, but those methods lacked the security the service needed for its more sensitive materials.

"You can also read data off a bar code or a magnetic stripe, but smart cards have more data capacity for shop information and sensitivity and classification information," said Peter Langworthy, director of the automatic identification technology center at Logicon Corp., the SATS integrator. "With bar code and magnetic stripe, we could not have done that."

Because both magnetic stripe and smart card systems incorporate bar code scanners for entering information on a package, both of those systems cost more than a basic bar code system alone. But the additional readers needed for the magnetic stripe and smart card system were about the same price: as low as $50, Langworthy said.

So far, the Air Force has deployed SATS at 39 bases. Those bases vary in size but average about 3,000 SATS smart card users each, for a total user community of 117,000 smart cards in the program. By the end of next year, the Air Force plans to expand SATS to all of its bases worldwide.

A benefit of smart cards is that they are reusable. Users typically remain at a post for about two years, said Tommie Ellis, SATS project manager in the headquarters Standard Systems Group at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and SATS has been in operation for three years, so many of the cards have been passed on to new users.

When a cardholder leaves a base, the card is returned to the SATS administrator. When it is reissued, the card is initialized in a cradle attached to a desktop workstation. The process adds the new cardholder's information, in exactly the same process as preparing a new, never-used card for service.

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