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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
In mid-August, at the end of the 90 days, the 40 beaconing tags will be switched off beacon mode. The 10 remaining tags—newer versions of the IQ-8 that can not be set to beacon—will be utilized for the second part of the test, which will last from mid-August to mid-September. This part of the test will entail reading and encoding data to the 10 tags, which hold 8 kilobytes of memory apiece.

The parts chosen for this and the previous tests are all repairable devices that FedEx must regularly put through a maintenance cycle. In the future, if FedEx deploys an active or passive RFID system for parts-tracking, it may track some of these items, as well. For the purposes of the test, however, the parts picked to tag were chosen because they are easy to access. The company is also studying the possible benefits of using RFID to track spare parts in inventory, as well as assets in maintenance facilities.

For the purposes of the test, the parts picked to tag were chosen based on the fact that they are easy to access. (photo courtesy Jack Kenner)
"We're hoping RFID can improve parts visibility and parts lifecycle visibility," says Ford. "The aircraft records department keeps track of hundreds and hundreds of parts, and if we could throw RFID tags on those parts, it would reduce the workload [generated by tracking them] significantly."

"We want this test to be successful because we're sick of chasing parts," said Ray Hanshew, senior data technician for Federal Express' air-operations division.

Following the protocol of the passive tests, the testers will ensure that the data encoded to the tag—its serial number, the name of the part and the area on the plane where it is placed, such as flight deck or main cargo compartment —can be read. They will additionally test that the tag can be written to. FedEx is not yet sure what additional data testers will write to the tag.

For the purpose of the test, FedEx engineers will use a laptop containing an Identec Solutions i-CARD 3 RFID interrogator card, which fits into the device's PC card slot, and an external antenna to read and write to the tags. Silverstroke, a German provider of auto-ID middleware and application software, has written demonstration software specifically designed for encoding and reading the tags being tested.

After the 120 days of testing, Porad will work with the FedEx staff to collect the results and comments generated from the project, and collate them into a write-up for the FAA. "I'll submit a report, asking for certification from the FAA [to allow active UHF tags to be placed on flights] within 30 days of the test's completion," Porad explains, adding that he's hoping for a quick response from the FAA.

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