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RFID Aids Space Exploration on Mars and Beyond

NASA has deployed a fixed UHF RFID reading system known as REALM-1 on the International Space Station, while the REALM-2 flying RFID reading robot and REALM-3 Smart Stowage system are in the works for the coming years.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 17, 2018

When scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) look toward deep space, with Mars exploration plans in place, they have some practical challenges ahead. One is the management of goods—equipment, tools and accessories—with a limited crew or even no crew at all.

Part of the solution to asset management in space includes RFID technology. NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) has been leading an effort to design three solutions to identify tagged items in space, in order reduce the need for humans to manually search for items or confirm what they are, says Patrick W. Fink, the chief technologist for JSC's wireless and communication systems branch.

The technology is being tested on the International Space Station (ISS) in three of the craft's modules. The system includes NASA custom interrogators based on the Jadak ThingMagic M6e reader module, as well as antennas designed in-house by JSC engineers, transmitting data to NASA's own management software. To date, NASA reports, RFID use with the ISS (which began 18 months ago) has increased operational awareness of goods used in space.

The system, known as RFID Enabled Autonomous Logistics Management (REALM) for Exploration Missions, comes with three separate initiatives jointly funded by NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) and the ISS Programs. Those initiatives are REALMs 1, 2 and 3—a fixed reader system designed to identify items moving from one part of the ship to another, a free-flying device with a built-in RFID reader to gain greater understanding of items' locations, and a smart storage cabinet that can read tagged items placed within its compartments.

NASA first began looking into RFID technology using handheld readers to supplement optical bar-code scanners in 2008. This served as a first step toward learning the effectiveness of RFID reads on spacecraft. But to be fully effective, the agency sought a hands-free solution that could provide zone-based location data without requiring a handheld reader.

The agency identified autonomous logistics management as a priority in 2015. It then began developing solutions, as well as looking at marketing the technologies to the commercial sector (see Johnson Space Center Seeks Partners to Market NASA-Developed RFID Technologies).

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