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Boeing's RFID Plan: The Sky's the Limit

Exploring the use of active tags on aircraft parts is the latest way the airplane manufacturer is advancing the use of RFID technology in the aviation industry—and beyond.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 01, 2006—En route from San Francisco International Airport to Hong Kong International Airport, a Boeing 787 experiences mechanical difficulties. A component inside the plane begins to overheat. The flight crew may be unaware of the problem, but a maintenance crew at the Hong Kong airport jumps into action. The failed component doesn't present any danger to the flight or passengers—parts redundancy is built into all Boeing planes, so one of two other identical parts takes over. But the component must be replaced before the aircraft takes off again. When the plane lands safely in Hong Kong, the maintenance crew is waiting with the new part.

The maintenance crew was alerted to the problem because an active tag attached to the part was read by the plane's onboard RFID system. A sensor embedded in the tag captured the temperature reading and included it in the tag's data transmission. The high reading triggered an alert that was transmitted to the ground crew via satellite. Once the crew was aware of the problem, it used an RFID asset-tracking system to quickly locate the part in Boeing's inventory facility.

The FAA will determine if RF transmissions from active tags aboard in-service planes pose any mechanical or communications concerns regarding the safe operation of civil aircraft.

This is a fictional scenario, but in four years or so, it could be standard operating procedure, says Ken Porad, a Boeing associate technical fellow and the program manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes' automated identification program. In August, Boeing, in partnership with FedEx, ran a series of tests to see what effect, if any, active RFID tags—some with integrated sensors—attached to various parts inside a Boeing MD-10 cargo plane would have on the plane's instrumentation. The test results showed just what Porad was hoping for: nothing.

The tags' presence did not create any electromagnetic interference with the plane's navigation or communications systems. The heat, cold, dirt, shock and vibration to which the tags were exposed during a 90-day in-service test did not negatively impact their performance. And the data encoded to the tags was still readable at the end of each test.

Boeing plans to submit its findings by year's end to the Federal Aviation Administration, in hopes that the regulatory agency will determine that the RF transmissions from active tags aboard in-service planes do not pose any mechanical or communications concerns regarding the safe operation of civil aircraft. It's possible that the agency won't rule on whether active RFID tags can be used on planes until the end of 2007.

It's not the first time that Porad has had to wait for FAA rulings to move ahead on Boeing's RFID initiatives. In 2003 and 2004, the aircraft manufacturer conducted two proof-of-technology tests—the first using passive high-frequency tags, the latter using passive ultrahigh-frequency tags. In each case, the tests raised no safety issues, and the FAA issued a policy that allows the use of passive tags on planes. That policy opened the door for Boeing's groundbreaking project: applying passive tags to aircraft parts that will be used in its upcoming 787 Dreamliner family of commercial aircraft, to improve parts tracking and maintenance. The FAA ruling on passive tags also provided clearance for airlines to tag passenger baggage and for companies to tag cargo containers.

But to turn our fictional scenario into reality, Boeing needs permission to use active tags, which have enough onboard processing power to support sensors. (Passive tags have no power of their own; they exploit power from an interrogator.) In addition to ushering in sweeping improvements to parts' life-cycle maintenance, the use of active tags with sensors would provide insights into the conditions to which parts are exposed during a plane's journey—information Boeing could use to improve aircraft design. Shipping companies and carriers, such as FedEx, are also keeping an eye out for the ruling, because if active tags and sensors could be added to cargo containers, it would increase visibility into the conditions of perishable goods in transit.
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