Boeing to Launch RFID Program for Airlines in February

By Claire Swedberg

The system will allow the company's customers to track the maintenance records of their aircraft parts using high-memory RFID tags, and may enable it to track those parts' locations as well in the future.

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Boeing Commercial Aviation Services is presently awaiting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for a radio frequency identification tracking system that it has been developing during the past year and intends to release next month. The solution, known as RFID Integrated Solutions, is currently being trialed by Alaska Airlines to determine how well tags on engine parts and other airplane components—including aircraft-rotating equipment and landing-gear parts—sustain the rigors of flight and still store and transmit data regarding each part’s maintenance record. Boeing began working on the solution a year ago, in partnership with Fujitsu (see Boeing, Fujitsu to Offer Airlines a Holistic RFID Solution).

In the future, Boeing intends to install the system as a standard component on all of the new 737, 777 and 787 commercial passenger aircraft that it builds, as well as on all P-8, C-17 and KC-46 military planes.


Boeing’s Lois Hill

A year ago, Boeing first partnered with Fujitsu to develop the solution—initially known as the Automated Identification Technology Retrofit package—using Fujitsu’s EPC Gen 2 RFID tags. The technology would enable airlines to attach the tags to aircraft parts. Information regarding a particular part could be written to a tag’s memory, and the data could then be viewed and amended by staff members as that part was maintained, repaired or inspected. In this way, those records could be created more easily, with fewer mistakes made (which could occur with handwritten or manually keyed-in records). The solution, which has since been renamed RFID Integrated Solutions, includes tags, software and readers to help users track their new and existing aircraft parts. FAA certification for airworthiness on commercial planes is expected to be granted in February or March of this year, according to Lois Hill, Boeing’s technical operations manager for RFID Integrated Solutions.

The Alaska Airlines trial commenced in March 2011 and is slated to last until March of this year, consisting of 28 tags attached to various parts on a passenger aircraft being used for regular scheduled flights. The airline’s workers at various airports periodically utilize handheld readers to determine whether the tags are storing data, and whether extreme conditions—such as heat, cold, dirt and water—affect tag performance. To date, says Phil Coop, Boeing Commercial Aviation Services’ program manager for RFID Integrated Solutions, the tags have proven their ability to withstand such conditions.

RFID Integrated Solutions was developed to manage and monitor five different types of parts or components: emergency equipment, rotables (rotating parts), reparable equipment, structural and cabin area. The software is written to provide data required by users specific to each of those areas—such as checking the status of reparable equipment, or of safety equipment within an aircraft’s cabin.

With the RFID solution, airlines are provided with two types of tags: Fujitsu’s high-memory RFID tag (containing up to 64 kilobytes of memory), and a non-RFID contact-memory button that has four gigabytes of memory and is small enough to be attached to items too small or irregular for an RFID tag. Boeing also provides the handheld interrogators and software to manage read data, and to enable the reading and writing of data onto the tags via the handhelds. The software can be installed on a user’s server, and can interface with an airline’s existing software systems.

Users will be able to read or write data on a tag by means of a handheld reader from Motorola Solutions or another manufacturer, and then transfer that data via a Wi-Fi connection or through a docking station. On the back-end system, the software interprets the tag-read data, such as the most recent date of maintenance, the type of maintenance provided, and when an inspection may be due or a part is scheduled to expire. The software stores that data, and can present it to a user either on a computer or on a handheld reader. For example, Coop says, the software can display an airplane’s layout—such as the cabin’s interior—and show icons in green or red, indicating items that may need to be inspected, removed or repaired.

At this time, Boeing does not yet have any customers for the solution, Coop says. “We’ve talked to numerous customers,” he states, “and have gone into discovery phase with a couple of them.” Many, he says, have indicated that the technology may be as important for supply chain management (for instance, tracking the location of a specific aircraft part), as well as for maintenance and repair.

“So we are engaging potential partners who can help us build an enterprise-wide solution,” Coop says. For example, the Boeing-Fujitsu technology could be integrated into a real-time location system (RTLS) for tracking the locations of parts within a facility, using a combination of active and passive RFID tags. Such an RTLS solution, Coop speculates, could reduce the amount of inventory that airlines must typically keep on hand in order to ensure that they do not run out of a part or piece of equipment due to lost or misplaced inventory.

Although the RFID technology has been developed for the passenger aircraft market, Coop says, Boeing is also working on a solution for cargo carriers. Airplanes that carry freight rather than passengers have very different equipment that may need to be monitored, he explains, such as cargo-loading systems (as opposed to the dozens or hundreds of life jackets stored on a passenger plane).

According to Coop, the solution will improve the operational efficiency of an airline’s maintenance staff. Mechanics typically spend a large percentage of their time performing the type of work that the RFID system aims to eliminate, such as finding parts and determining when and how they were serviced.