FAA to Publish Passive RFID Policy

By Mark Roberti

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's formal approval paves the way for the use of passive RFID tags on individual airline parts.

  • TAGS

Senior managers at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have formally approved the use of passive radio frequency identification tags on individual airline parts. The FAA had determined back in April that passive tags on airplane parts would not be a problem (see Passive RFID Tags OK'd for Takeoff), but it has taken until now for senior officials to endorse the new policy.

This move paves the way for manufacturers Boeing and Airbus to use RFID to track individual components on airplanes. "As long as they are using passive RFID tags, this policy authorizes the manufacturers to tag their parts," says a senior aerospace engineer at the FAA, who declined to be identified, citing FAA policy.

Boeing's Kenneth Porad

An FAA memo released this week, dated May 13, 2005 but approved at the top levels only earlier this month, says the FAA "has concerns that RFID devices could fail in a manner that would interfere with equipment on the airplane necessary for continued safe flight and landing."

To address those concerns, the FAA's aircraft engineering and aircraft maintenance divisions created a team to examine RFID technologies. Tests were done on Boeing planes (see Tests Show UHF Tags Safe for Planes), and based on the results, the FAA developed air-worthiness criteria to help identify which RFID tag technology could be used without compromising safety.

The memo says the use of "passive-only" technology poses no risk to airplanes in flight, but that separate evaluations must be done on active and battery-assisted tags to determine whether they could interfere with the operation of an airplane. The memo goes on to say that passive RFID tags can be used under the following conditions:

• The tags must operate in the "passive-only" mode.

• The tags must not reflect back ambient RF energy of 35 decibels referenced to 1 microvolt per meter. (This is to make sure that the tags don't pick up energy emitted by the engines or other devices, reflect it back and possibly interfere with aircraft systems.)

• The frequency used by the tags needs to be outside the published aviation frequency bands to prevent interference with aircraft systems. (The most common RFID frequencies—2.45 MHz, 915 MHz and 13.56 MHz—do not overlap with any frequencies used in aviation and are acceptable for tagging parts.)

• Passive tags must be interrogated, or read, only on the ground when the airplane is not in operation.

• The tags must function properly when installed and be designed "to operate in an aircraft operational environment with robust radio frequency stability."

The policy applies to passive tags permanently installed on aircraft, parts, equipment and cargo containers, such as pallets and unit load devices (ULDs), as well as to passive tags attached temporarily to cargo, galley carts or baggage carried on board aircraft. The ruling paves the way for the tagging not only of parts but also of airline baggage, air cargo and even parcels that might eventually be equipped with passive RFID transponders.

Kenneth Porad, program manager for automated identification programs at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, says he welcomes the news. "This means we can use RFID tags on spare parts [for planes operating within the United States] today," he says. "We don't even have to wait to use them on new aircraft being built."

The FAA had previously certified one type of active RFID tag from Savi Technology for use on a limited number of aircraft types after that systems provider, located in Sunnyvale, Calif., requested approval so the tags could be used to track ULDs in the cargo holds of planes.

Other than that, the FAA had no RFID policy. A source at the FAA told RFID Journal that the FAA will now consider whether it can certify active and battery-assisted tags for use on aircraft. "Passive tags look more benign, so we wanted to get that policy out the door before we started looking at other types of RFID tags," the source explains.

Before Boeing and Airbus can use tags on airplane parts for planes flown internationally, however, they will need to get approval from other regulatory agencies around the world. "We will be seeking and expect approval from the other regulatory agencies in alignment with the FAA decision," says Porad.