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RFID Takes Hold in the U.S. Air Force

Robins Air Force Base, in Georgia, developed an RFID system to track critical aircraft components and tools, thus saving money and improving safety. The asset-tracking system has been deployed at five other bases and could become part of a standard solution in the Air Force.
By John Edwards
Dec 15, 2008—The maintenance professionals at Georgia's Robins Air Force Base understand that tracking and organizing critical tools and components is not just a good idea, but a potential lifesaver. "A screwdriver might end up someplace and take out a $3 million engine," observes Bernard Lannan, director of the base's 78th Communications Group. In other words, he notes, a careless mistake or oversight on the ground could easily result in a catastrophe at 30,000 feet.

Under the motto, "Shield the Enterprise," the 78th aims to serve as the U.S. Department of Defense's "premier, progressive and proactive cyber support organization." At Robins, the group relies on RFID technology to ensure that aircraft parts and tools are always where they should be, ready for immediate use and not rolling around inside a wing, engine or fuselage.

The 78th first considered RFID in late 2003, when Air Force officials requested a better method of tracking and inventorying gyroscopes—fragile and costly devices that are critical to several aircraft navigations systems and require frequent servicing. "It was identified to us that they would like to be able to lay their hands on these [components] faster," says David Carrick, one of the 78th's Automatic Identification Technologies (AIT) program managers, "so we started looking at technologies that would give us that capability."

Realizing RFID was the most appropriate technology for the job, Carrick (one of the 78th's technology experts), along with Cynthia Gunter of the 78th, and Whitfield Samuel of Computer Sciences Corp. and his team, began developing a tracking and management infrastructure that would eventually be employed to improve the business processes of thousands of assets at facilities nationwide.

Carrick and his team developed an RFID-driven architecture, layout and deployment methodology, which it dubbed the Air Force Global Enterprise Tracking (AFGET) system, then submitted it to the Depot Maintenance Transformation Office of the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) as a solution for asset tracking. As Carrick envisioned it, AFGET would serve as a universal asset-monitoring and -tracking platform that could accommodate a wide range of location-oriented technologies—from active and passive RFID components to GPS components. "One of the things that makes AFGET unique is the integration of multiple technologies into a single interface," he says. The system enables end users, including mechanics and supervisors, to visit a single Web interface and scan through lists of tracked items to find their exact location, via a visual representation or printed text.

According to Carrick, AFGET can handle most types of assets, ranging from air frames to specialized tool kits and components. Larger assets, such as jets and ground vehicles, can be followed via an active tag or GPS tracking. "It's not cost-efficient for us, however, to use active RFID or GPS on smaller assets—items that you may run through, say, 1,000 a day—so we use passive [tags] to handle those," Carrick explains. "Still, they all feed into the same Web interface." Even paper items, such as documents, portfolios and training manuals, can be tracked with the assistance of small passive tags.

Single-glance visibility and insight is AFGET's key attribute, Carrick says. "It's designed to give the mechanic the visibility to do his or her job quickly, and without errors." The system also aims to accommodate the unique mandates imposed by many Air Force assets. "There are some specific pieces," he adds, "where, unlike on your car, the item you remove is the very one that goes back onto the aircraft." As such, AFGET was engineered to track not only part types but also specific parts. "That's one reason why RFID is such a good fit," Carrick states. "It can follow things on an individual basis."
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