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In-Flight Active-Tag Test Successful, Says Boeing

The plane maker plans to submit a proposal to the FAA by month's end, requesting that the agency issue a policy allowing active tags aboard airplanes.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Sep 15, 2006In a recent Samuel L. Jackson blockbuster movie, snakes on a plane caused serious havoc. In a recently concluded test conducted by Boeing and FedEx, however, active tags on a plane were shown to have no effect at all on the operation of aircraft. In an attempt to prove that actively transmitting UHF active tags are safe to carry on a plane in flight, the test created the potential for causing electromagnetic interference with a plane's instrumentation and communication systems: Forty tags distributed throughout the plane transmitted their IDs at three-second intervals for 90 continuous days, while the FedEx MD-10 cargo plane they were aboard flew its daily routes to deliver FedEx parcels.

According to Ken Porad, program manager of the automatic-identification program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes Group, the findings of the test were very encouraging. "There was no reported electromagnetic interference," Porad says.

Ken Porad
The test began in mid-May, when a team from FedEx, Boeing and Identec Solutions attached the tags to parts of the plane at FedEx's Memphis headquarters, before the aircraft was loaded with parcels and flown to San Francisco (see Boeing, FedEx Test Active UHF Tags).

The absence of electromagnetic interference is what both Boeing and FedEx were hoping for, and it is this main finding that Porad will use as the foundation for his formal request that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) generate a policy statement allowing for actively transmitting tags to be carried on aircraft, including those in flight. This would be similar to the guidelines the FAA issued in 2005, allowing passive tags to be carried aboard airplanes (see FAA to Publish Passive RFID Policy).

That prior ruling carries some restrictions regarding the passive tag's operational settings. This time, however, Porad hopes the FAA will issue an "unconditional" policy approving the use of active tags on planes, as he believes there can be valid reasons for reading the tags during a flight. The passive-tag policy says the tags can be interrogated only on the ground, when the airplane is not in operation. Still, any policy the FAA issues would have to include one important condition: To prevent interference with aircraft systems, the frequency used by the active tags must be outside those used by the aviation industry. The FAA's ruling on passive tags already carries a similar condition.

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