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Boeing Reveals More About Its Tag Plans

The company outlines the types of data that will be encoded to specialized UHF tags for Dreamliner airplane parts, and moves closer to establishing a timeline for the tags' creation.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Nov 29, 2005At a meeting of the Air Transport Association's Automated Identification and Data Capture Task Force, Boeing Commercial Airplanes announced updates to its initiative to use passive UHF RFID tags on parts to build the Boeing Dreamliner. The Everett, Wash., manufacturer will introduce its new family of passenger jets in 2008 (see Boeing's Flight Plan for Dreamliner Tags).

One agenda item of the meeting, which took place Nov. 15 in Chicago, was to address the security of data encoded to the tags. Kenneth Porad, Boeing's program manager for automated identification programs, says that during the gathering, his company announced a threat and risk analysis it is performing to determine how the safety of airplanes might be compromised by tag data being either read or altered by nefarious parties.

Boeing's Kenneth Porad
Porad and his team received input regarding data security from the airline representatives attending the meeting. He says he asked attendees the following question: "I don't even know if this is possible, but what if someone with an RFID-enabled Nokia phone read a tag on a part used in his seat?" Although the airline representatives were unable to point to specific concerns about such a seemingly benign reading, they did express discomfort about the prospect, according to Porad. He says one possible method of ensuring only authorized parties read the tags would involve authenticating the reading transactions by entering a PIN into a keyboard on the interrogator. The Boeing team conducting the threat and risk analysis will present its findings at the next meeting of the task force, to be held some time in January.

During the Nov. 15 meeting, Boeing also laid out a rough outline of the data that will be encoded to the tags' 64 kilobytes of memory. Porad says a set of six required data fields and two conditional ones will be encoded with unalterable data. This data will include the part name (in English), the part number, a code identifying the supplier, the part's serial number, its date of manufacture and the country of origin. The two conditional fields, used only for relevant parts, will include the name of the part fabricator (if different than the Boeing supplier) and information on any hazardous materials contained in the part, such as tritium, used in self-luminous pigments for displays that must be read at night. The format of these data fields will be compliant with Spec 2000, a set of aviation industry specifications developed by the ATA. Spec 2000, the globally adopted data format specification for parts traceability, is used to codify data linked to parts via bar codes.

Several variable data fields will include such information as current part number (if different than the original number) and notations about past damage. The data in these fields will be editable.

The remaining memory on the chip will hold a maintenance history on the part. Each time a part is serviced, for instance, data relating to the inspection and repair work done to the part, along with a date and time stamp, will be written to the tag. This maintenance history data will be alterable. Porad notes that initially, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will not allow a part's tag to be used as a primary information source for maintenance. Currently, these primary sources consist of paper-based maintenance and pilot logs, required by the FAA to document all work done to keep planes airworthy. Instead, the tags will initially be used only to get quick data on the parts without having to consult the paper-based maintenance logs kept for the parts. "In time, as confidence in the technology grows," says Porad, "I believe the FAA will likely allow the tags to be used as the primary source."

The data encoded to the tags will also need to be synchronized with the information systems used by each airline. This will help make sure the most current data is available to all parties within the airlines that need the information, while also ensuring the most current data encoded to each tag is backed up daily. Thus, a backup will be available should a tag break and no longer be able to transmit its data.

Porad says that during the task force get-together, Boeing also announced its plans to meet with RFID chip and tag manufacturers in December to develop a 12-month timeline for the development, manufacture and certification of the passive UHF RFID tags it wants its suppliers to attach to Dreamliner parts. During an Oct. 25 meeting between Boeing and RFID hardware vendors, Porad had requested that manufacturers interested in working to develop the tags send a statement of their interest to Boeing. Those that responded to his request will attend the timeline meeting next month.
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