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NASA Discovers RTLS Works Well in Small Spaces

Boeing and NASA installed an ultra-wideband (UWB) real-time location system (RTLS) at the Kennedy Space Center to track thousands of assets used to support the International Space Station. One innovative feature is the use of vehicle-mounted readers to track items delivered to the launch pad.
Nov 12, 2008This article was originally published by RFID Update.

November 12, 2008—The NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) has made a breakthrough in space exploration, right here on earth. Thousands of tools and equipment used there are being tracked in three dimensions with ultra-wideband (UWB) real-time location system (RTLS) technology that locates items in small spaces -- to within a cubic foot. The system is saving hundreds of hours for earthbound crews who support the orbiting International Space Station.

Boeing is currently about halfway through implementing the second phase of its RTLS system at the Kennedy Space Center, which is located in Florida. Boeing manages multiple programs there and uses UWB RTLS to track tools, equipment and other assets. Boeing first implemented the system last year to track 279 assets worth $100,000 or more, expanded it to another 310 items and is now in phase 2, where about 3,000 additional items will be tagged and tracked.

"The main thrust right now is to use the infrastructure we developed in Phase 1 and tag more hardware," Boeing's Philip Lintereur told RFID Update. By February, Boeing expects to have approximately 35 percent of its assets at NASA KSC tagged, including 60 percent of the assets at the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) there. The SSPF supports missions to the International Space Center.

"Before every launch we do a walk down to make sure there is nothing left on the pad. There is danger if anything is left where it is not supposed to be. With 7.7 million pounds of thrust from the rockets, if something isn't tied down, it's going somewhere," said Lintereur. "Before, the walkdown would take a crew of 23 about two and a half hours, and there'd be 90 people on standby during that period. Now we have instant information about where everything is located."

Boeing and NASA worked with RFID Global Solution and Franwell to create the RTLS system. (See the announcement from RFID Global Solution.)

One of the more unusual aspects is the use of vehicle-mounted RTLS readers that track tools and assets that are driven to the launch pad and other areas of the facility. RTLS readers have been built into two vans and two semi trucks. All tagged items that are loaded are automatically recorded, and the information is transferred to a laptop that users plug into the vehicle. Item records are automatically transferred when the vehicle returns to the facility's wireless LAN coverage area. There are also 31 fixed-position readers that cover various locations.

If an item is brought to the launch pad but isn't recorded when the vehicle leaves, system software issues an alert via the in-vehicle laptop. "We know what we're going out there with, and what comes back," said Lintereur.

Lintereur said Boeing chose active UWB because it was the only RTLS technology that could meet its goal of providing location accuracy within one cubic foot. That accuracy is achieved most of the time, but the system is not always as accurate when used around large metal cranes. There are several handheld RTLS readers that can be used to locate items in hard-to-reach areas.

"To tell the truth, we are rarely using them because the mapping info we get from the fixed readers is so good," Lintereur said. "The handhelds will be more useful when we start tagging other types of assets, such as flex hoses, and we need to find one specific item that's in a stack."

The current system saves about 20 days in inventory operations, Lintereur estimates. Boeing and NASA are making plans for a third phase of the project, where they envision using passive RFID tags and readers to track thousands more items.

In the future, RTLS tracking could go even further.

"I could definitely see this being used in space," said Lintereur. "Here we have gravity, which helps keep things put. But up there..."

See RFID Global Solutions' announcement
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