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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

JSC and NASA's Ames Research Center are jointly investigating a robotic free-flyer with a built-in RFID reader. This free-flyer would float through a region of the space station, capturing RFID tag reads as it does so. It comes with a propellant; its course can be programmed into its onboard computer, and the system then links its location with the RFID read data, in order to identify what is found at any given location.

According to Fink, JSC is currently considering RFID reader alternatives to reduce crew labor, while at the same time reducing the need for fixed RFID readers that increase the number of cables onboard and take up power outlets. "Having conventional readers and cables everywhere," he says, "is not an option for future deep-space missions, primarily due to mass [size] constraints."

JSC has also developed a container that utilizes RFID-based sensors to detect how many items, such as pills or Band-Aids, are stored inside it, and that data can then be transmitted to a reader via a UHF RFID tag attached to that container. Fink declines to explain how the system determines how many items are in a particular container.

In addition, the space agency is investigating tags with extended read ranges, which were initially developed for possible use on lunar missions. JSC had been looking into a passive UHF RFID tag with a longer read range, which could be used to provide navigation aid for the lunar lander or vehicles traveling across the Moon's surface. The tags could be spread on the surface of the Moon, and a reader on the vehicle could capture the ID numbers while JSC software determined the vehicle's location according to those reads. Fink says there may still be additional needs for a tag with a long read range, and the JSC is working with partners to develop an RFID tag that employs an array of antennas on tags to extend the read range and produce additional power for the tag—for example, when attached to a sensor.

The agency has determined that much of its development—the smart drawer, for instance—has potential use cases in the commercial sector, such as health care. Fink says JSC is currently in conversations with potential end users in health care and other markets regarding the technology.

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