Commercial airplanes must undergo a number of daily, weekly and monthly maintenance checks to ensure they're flight-ready. These manual checks include inspection of life vests, oxygen generators and other loose emergency equipment in an aircraft's cabin—a process that is labor-intensive and costly.
Before a plane's first flight each day, for example, airline personnel must confirm the presence of life vests under seats (unless the plane uses seats as flotation devices). Another inspection, to verify the integrity of life vest security seals, a theft deterrent and antiterrorism measure, is typically conducted before every flight on aircraft operating within or flying internationally into the United States. Inspections to verify the serviceability of life vests are performed every few hundred flight hours or every several months, during what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) refers to as A-checks or C-checks. For these inspections, maintenance personnel must remove every life vest from its container to check its expiration date. On a wide-body airplane, this task can take an entire 8-hour shift.
In spring 2012, Boeing introduced its RFID Integrated Solutions program, designed to automate maintenance tasks on emergency equipment, as well as to track and manage other aircraft items and components. Boeing has been working on developing RFID-based maintenance capabilities for a number of years, and the final step was for the FAA to certify that RFID tags can serve as the authoritative source for maintenance compliance requirements, such as confirming the inspection of onboard emergency equipment. The program also has gained preliminary acceptance by the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
"With the maintenance program we built, we now can use RFID data as a trusted source of information and sign off on maintenance task cards using that data in the form of an 'as-flying configuration' report generated by the RFID system," says William "Phil" Coop, Boeing program manager.
RFID Integrated Solutions, designed to be integrated into an airline's overall maintenance program, promises to reduce the cost of aircraft maintenance. Manual checks for life vest presence, security and serviceability are performed independently, for example, and conducting all those tasks on a wide-body aircraft could take 10 or more labor hours. With the Boeing solution, an airline can use one RFID-enabled process to perform presence, security and serviceability checks independently or simultaneously. It would take only a few labor minutes to conduct all tasks simultaneously, Coop says. Boeing's conservative estimate is an 85 percent lead-time reduction, though the company says it's typically better than that.
Securing FAA Approval
Getting to this point wasn't easy. Boeing began investigating RFID in the late 1990s, and since 2003 the company has been using the technology to track parts during the manufacture of commercial aircraft. In 2004, Boeing and Airbus, the two major commercial airplane manufacturers, teamed up to develop standards to use RFID to mark individual parts and keep maintenance records on RFID tags. They believed RFID could deliver benefits to the entire industry—airplane manufacturers could improve operational efficiencies, and airlines could reduce the time it takes to repair and maintain planes. In 2007, Boeing teamed with Japan Airlines (JAL) to demonstrate that RFID could speed the inspection process of oxygen generators onboard a 777 commercial airline.
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