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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
Apr 01, 2014

After more than five years investigating the development of a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID system for tracking assets and equipment for spaceflight applications, including on the International Space Station (ISS) and for future deep space missions, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)'s Johnson Space Center (JSC) is seeking partners to market the technologies for use in the commercial sector as well, and to collaborate with NASA to further develop solutions.

NASA has developed a variety of RFID-based products, including RFID-enabled cabinets to track tagged items stored within them, and a system utilizing RFID sensors to make sure that proper torque is applied to a bolt or other fastener. The technologies are at various readiness levels, according to Patrick W. Fink, JSC's chief technologist for the wireless and communication systems branch, depending on the specific application.

JSC's Patrick W. Fink
The asset-tracking system deployed on the ISS helps NASA track the locations of approximately 20,000 items via bar-code and RFID technologies. Staff members are employing bar-code scanners to update information data in the agency's software, while NASA has used handheld RFID readers to evaluate how it can expedite audits, and to help locate missing items. An initial smart cabinet has been launched to allow on-demand audits of internal contents from the ground, Fink adds. In addition, NASA engineers are currently evaluating architectures with RFID readers installed at the hatches between different ISS modules.

While tracking small items on a large space station may already be challenging, doing so without gravity is even more difficult. At zero gravity, the assets must all be containerized and the containers must be strapped to walls. If a container is opened, the items within could potentially float away and become lodged somewhere, and then be overlooked for days or weeks. As a result, NASA is using RFID to manage those assets, while developing other solutions to expand the technology's effectiveness.

The International Space Station supports missions in space with crew shifts that may last for about six months, during which a half-dozen crewmembers spend that time conducting laboratory research and operating the station. To ensure that medicines, tools and personal belongings (such as clothing) can be accounted for, personnel historically have used bar codes, both on the ground and in space, to locate items and ensure they are ready for use by the crew. However, Fink says, the bar-code scanning process was time-consuming enough that inventory audits could not be conducted as often as originally intended.

By the early 2000s, Fink says, JSC began looking into RFID technology to help track assets and consumables, including medical supplies, amounting to about 20,000 items. "The space station is a living laboratory and the crew are periodically changing," he states, making it that much more difficult to monitor the locations of onboard assets.

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