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Boeing, FedEx Test Active UHF Tags

The two companies have begun a proof-of-concept test to seek the FAA's approval to place battery-powered UHF RFID tags on aircraft parts.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 19, 2006Having completed proof-of-concept tests over the past few years that resulted in the Federal Aviation Administration's decision to allow passive RFID tags to be placed on aircraft components, Boeing and FedEx have begun a proof-of-concept test to seek the FAA's approval to place active UHF RFID tags on aircraft parts. This approval is important because without it, a carrier would be liable if equipment on a plane did not function properly due to interference from the active tags.

On Wednesday, representatives from the two firms installed a total of 50 Identec Solutions IQ-8 battery-powered UHF tags on various components of an MD-10 cargo plane—the same plane used for a proof-of-concept test for high-frequency (13.56 MHz) passive tags in 2003, and for tests involving ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) passive (915 MHz) tags. As that plane took off Wednesday night, it was the first non-military cargo aircraft on record to carry transmitting UHF RFID tags, according to the companies.

Boeing and FedEx have begun a proof-of-concept test to seek the FAA's approval to place active UHF RFID tags on aircraft parts. (photo courtesy Jack Kenner)

"We are making history," says Ken Porad, program manager of the automated-identification program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group. "If we can use active tags on flights, that sets the stage to begin deploying wireless sensor networks, in which things like temperature sensors could be attached to the tags and used to monitor perishable goods in transit."

Such technology could provide significant benefits to shipping companies such as FedEx, as it would allow greater monitoring of goods in transit. For Boeing, the use of active tags with sensors would improve visibility into the conditions to which airplane parts are exposed during flight. "We could watch things like the gravity forces on landing gear," he says.

Some of the IQ-8 tags used in the test have integrated temperature sensors, so these will also log the ambient temperatures in their vicinity.

Of the 50 tags installed on the plane, 40 are set to beacon mode, transmitting a signal once every three seconds. "This is showing a worst-case scenario," says Barry Allen, Identec Solutions' vice president of engineering. That is, having the tags transmitting data almost constantly allows the proof-of-concept test to create the potential for causing electromagnetic interference with a plane's instrumentation and communication systems.

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