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Johnson Space Center Seeks Partners to Market NASA-Developed RFID Technologies

On the International Space Station, crewmembers take inventory by reading UHF RFID tags attached to items, while a smart drawer will enable ground personnel to ping readers and learn what contents are loaded inside.
By Claire Swedberg

In 2007, JSC began looking into the use of passive RFID tags utilizing surface acoustic wave (SAW) technology to help it take inventory of consumable items in space (see NASA to Launch RFID Test to Track Crewmember Supplies), which initially showed promise for use on the space station, Fink says. However, NASA carried out similar tests with EPC Gen 2 UHF tags (see NASA, Intermec Partner to Send RFID Into Space), and discovered that these new tags out-performed the SAW labels in terms of reliability and the ability to read individual tags within larger populations. Therefore, in 2008, JSC began experimenting with placing the new Gen 2 tags on items that would go into space aboard the station. However, JSC still intends to employ SAW technology for some sensor-based tracking related to temperature, pressure or other condition measurements in very extreme environments.

JSC is investigating RFID as part of what it calls the Autonomous Logistics Management (ALM) concept, which is focused on three themes: dense zone identification of items inside an RF-shielded enclosure or "smart drawer" (such as small goods packed tightly together); sparse zone identification of items located in open areas, including anything that may be packed in a bag, or that may have been inadvertently released from such a container and floated to an unknown location aboard the space station; and software for receiving RFID data and inferring the location of some items, based on the context of their reads.

As an example of the third theme, if the tag attached to a cargo transfer bag (CTB) is interrogated at a specific location, even if some of the tags of items stored within that bag are not read, the software infers that those objects are located there as well. Most tagged items are, in fact, located in CTBs, considered sparse reading areas. As many as 75 items can be stored in a single bag, many of them tagged, and JSC software, in turn, stores data indicating the tag to which each item is linked. By using a UHF RFID handheld reader, the station's crew can interrogate tags inside the bag without having to open it. This is important, because there is a risk, every time a bag is opened, that goods may float away. To inventory the bags' contents via a bar-code scanner, Fink says, took 20 to 30 minutes, since each bag had to be resealed every time an item was removed and scanned. With RFID, the inventory process takes about 20 seconds to complete.

NASA is also investigating the use of fixed portal readers that can be installed at specific locations, Fink says, such as chokepoints between one area of the station and another. In that case, if a bag were carried through the portal, the software would be updated to indicate the new zone in which that bag and its contents could be found.

If crewmembers are searching for a missing item, they can put their ACC Systems Inc. ACC570 handheld reader in "Geiger counter" mode and walk through the space station, listening as the beeps emitted by that device become louder and more frequent the closer they get to the tagged item being sought.

For a dense reading environment, the smart drawer allows workers on the ground to prompt the cabinet via radio to read the tags of all items stored inside it. That information is then sent back to ground control, where personnel can view what is in the cabinet and determine if anything is potentially running out.

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