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EPC RFID Simplifies Inventory for NASA's Langley Research Center

The research facility uses passive tags to identity equipment and its location, enabling it to cut the time spent taking stock of its equipment from three weeks to one day.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 23, 2010Since installing an RFID system for tracking 3,000 pieces of equipment at its data center, offices and laboratory, NASA's Langley Research Center has reduced the time required for inventory counts from three weeks to a single day. The system was installed not only to address the challenge of inventory tracking within the facility, but also to ease the process of recording information about equipment taken out for fieldwork. The solution was provided by systems integrator DataSpan, using Enasys software to manage data regarding the location of inventoried devices.

Langley, located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, in Hampton, Va., was established in 1917 as the United States' first civilian aeronautics laboratory. Its engineers work on technologies to make civilian and military planes safer, quieter and more efficient. When swimwear manufacturer Speedo wanted to develop a new, faster style of swimsuit, it sought the research center's expertise in drag reduction, and utilized a Langley wind tunnel to test fabric now being worn by champion swimmers worldwide. Currently, the research center is working to design and test a new launch-abort system for the next-generation space capsules.

The research center includes a 20,000-square-foot data center containing approximately 1,500 servers and other computing equipment, which must be inventoried at least annually. Servers can be moved from one rack to another, or be removed and returned for servicing. The inventory process was managed manually, using paper and pen, by comparing serial numbers affixed to pieces of equipment with similar data printed on a spreadsheet, explains Steve Mercier, Langley's senior systems integrator.

In the 100,000-square-foot office and laboratory facility, scientists employ another approximately 1,500 pieces of equipment, such as atmospheric sensors and laptops used in the field for climate research, to track such details as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The equipment is sometimes taken to locations outside of the area, such as to Alaska or the Caribbean. When scientists removed equipment from Langley, they had to write each item's serial number on a piece of paper, which is then input into the lab's back-end system to help the staff track the equipment's location. This, too, was a time-consuming process, Mercier explains, particularly for tools taken offsite. Without proper records, employees might know that a piece of equipment is not on the premises, and might therefore waste time searching for it throughout the facility. Although items are not removed often, they can leave the center for significant lengths of time.

The solution employs EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags attached to research equipment, as well as the racks in which the equipment may be mounted and the entranceways of the rooms in which the items may be stored. DataSpan applied Omni-ID RFID tags to racks in the data center, as well as to servers on those racks. In the Enasys software, all servers assigned to a particular rack are then linked to the ID number encoded to that rack's tag. For each room in the office area, a UPM Raflatac tag is applied to the wall next to a sign indicating that location's room number, and equipment belonging in that room is also tagged—Omni-ID tags are used on servers, while Sontec tags are affixed to laboratory equipment. The different tags were selected based on their ability to fit either the servers or the smaller lab equipment. Each item that belongs in that specific room is linked in the software to the room tag's ID number.

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