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Auburn RFID Lab Expands to Avionics With Delta Gift

Delta Air Lines' Aviation Sensor ID Bay will be dedicated to researching and development related to RFID technology use for tracking flyable parts, baggage and tools for airlines, aircraft companies and original equipment manufacturers, as well as for the RFID companies that serve them.
By Claire Swedberg

Numerous airlines are either testing or deploying RFID technology in three other key use cases. In one scenario, RFID is being used to identify life jackets and other emergency equipment in aircraft cabins for automated inspections, and to prevent expirations or missing equipment on any aircraft. Secondly, companies are utilizing RFID on some flyable, serviceable parts that must be maintained on aircrafts, thereby creating a record of which services have been provided for each part, along with how long that part has been in use. Lastly, RFID is being employed to track the tools used by airlines for servicing and maintenance.

The challenges for the aircraft industry are more complex than for the retail sector, Patton says. "They have very different needs," he states, "and the technology is very different than the RFID used in retail." For one thing, the high-memory tags require fire-safety certification, radiation shielding and materials handling-instructions, to ensure that they can withstand the rigors of flying and meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements. The tags are more expensive than the EPC UHF RFID tags attached to retail products, and the deployment of RFID tags will be considerably smaller. Therefore, Patton explains, the impact on the RFID industry is different than the growth in retail is. "Aviation has a much greater ratio of infrastructure to tags."

The Auburn University Department of Theater is working on building a simulated fuselage to test the readability of tags inside a typical plane. In the meantime, the bay is already in use for some early projects, and Patton predicts it will be fully functional in early spring 2018. By that time, the lab may be testing the use of RFID tags on up to 9,000 different types of parts that would benefit from being tracked automatically within aircraft. Testing will include identifying which tags work best on which parts, as well as where and how they should be applied.

This year, Bill Hardgrave, the RFID Lab's founder (at its original location at the University of Arkansas, when it was previously known as the RFID Research Center), as well as the dean of Auburn's Harbert College of Business, has been appointed Auburn University's provost and VP of academic affairs. He says his focus will be on three academic themes: preparing students for career and life, increasing research and scholarship, and raising the school's national visibility.

"The work we have done at the RFID Lab over the years is a great example of success in each of the areas," Hardgrave says. He adds that the RFID Lab has used students as its primary source of labor, and that upon graduation, these students are on the cutting edge of technology, "and are coveted by industry."

In the long term, Hardgrave predicts that the RFID Lab—as simply a research center for retail-based RFID use—will be phased out, as the use of RFID technology becomes nearly ubiquitous. For that reason, he says, the lab is beginning to broaden its scope to include a full suite of technologies using sensor fusion, which includes the inclusion of aviation.

In the meantime, Patton says, the work for the aviation industry is just getting started at the RFID Lab. "It's a living lab," he states, so other hardware—such as readers, tags and avionic materials—will be added or changed as needed with a continued focus on sensor fusion (the aggregation of data from multiple sensors).

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