RFID Takes Hold in the U.S. Air Force

By John Edwards

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.

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."

News Spreads

It didn't take long for AFGET to gain momentum within the Robins maintenance community, Carrick says. "Things really started to pick up in 2006," he notes. "We branched out from a small office tracking gyroscopes located inside a building that was 4,500 to 6,000 square feet, to the point that we now have over 1 square mile of coverage, both indoors and outdoors." The project has also advanced from tracking approximately 25 gyroscopes to following more than 15,000 assets at Robins.

News regarding AFGET and its potential to boost efficiency and cut costs quickly reached other Air Force maintenance groups nationwide. "Along the way, other offices... became aware of what we were doing," Carrick says. "The project started off small, but once folks started to see the success we achieved, we became the organization to benchmark."

But the 78th and AIT did not rush to place AFGET into outside hands. The developers first wanted to determine how well the system would perform under limited-scale, yet real-world conditions at Robins. "We paced it to make sure that we were as thorough as possible as we rolled the system out," Carrick says, "that we had proven success before we moved it into other organizations." The staged deployment, he adds, helped ensure consistent system behavior and performance across all bases adopting the technology.

Over the past few years, the AFGET system has been adopted by five other Air Force facilities as well, including Tinker Air Force Base, in Oklahoma City; Hill Air Force Base, in Utah; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio; and the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Mothan, in Tucson, Ariz. Carrick says he's continuing to work with AIT program managers at other bases to ensure AFGET's architecture is standardized.

AFGET's database was developed so it could interact with any other database, says Barbara Buller, a 78th AIT program manager. "If you need information fed to an existing database," she adds, "then that link could be created."

Flexible Flyer

Carrick attributes AFGET's popularity to the fact that the system was designed to be both flexible and adaptable—able to meet the needs of numerous organizations working in disparate locations and handling various types of assets. "It also gives us the unique benefit that if an asset is at one base and then gets moved to another that has AFGET coverage—whether it be for repair or a loan—the infrastructure that tracks it is the same at both places," he says. "You can actually track an asset from one base to another, and you won't have to swap out tags."

Preventing mistakes was a prime reason for creating AFGET, Carrick says. But beyond risking lives, he notes, mistakes can be expensive. "There are some pieces where if something happens, and you have to actually change that item, the cost is over a half-million dollars," he states. "The replacement kit to match up a different pair of wings, for example, can be in excess of $600,000."

In the high-octane world of military aviation maintenance, even seemingly inconsequential items can carry jaw-droppingly high price tags. "It can be something as simple as a toolbox," Lannan says. "We track who knows how many toolboxes, and each one of those has an average value of $20,000 to $30,000."

In addition, AFGET can slash costs by preventing personnel from requisitioning assets in excessive quantities. Golf carts, for instance, are widely used by mechanics and other personnel who often need to travel a mile or more between hangers and other repair sites.

"We can actually go to the system and look at where all of the golf carts have moved," Carrick says. If, for example, AFGET shows that three carts have not budged in several months, the evidence can be utilized to deny a request for additional carts. "It becomes not only an issue of avoiding unnecessary purchases, but we can also look at reutilizing those three [carts] elsewhere," Carrick says. "The system gives us information so that we can actually trim down our inventory and operate efficiently, with as little overhead as possible."

"The Air Force is really interested in lean initiatives, and how we can cut back," Buller adds. "So all this data that's been collected in the AFGET system's database can be used to analyze where these items have flowed, how long it's taken them, that sort of thing."

Another AFGET benefit is that it saves time by offering users the ability to instantly locate critical assets. It's difficult to believe the Air Force could lose track of something as large and valuable as an F16 fighter jet, but Carrick notes that maintenance facilities typically cover many acres, and locating a specific F16 among the dozens that may be awaiting servicing at a single moment can be an arduous and time-wasting effort, particularly if the fighter's tail number is missing or obscured. With AFGET, maintenance crews can pinpoint a tagged jet's location visually on the application's Web interface.

"They don't have to go to each mechanic and check out the plane's paperwork," Carrick says. The RFID tags used by AFGET, he notes, are only temporarily attached to the planes for as long as they are located at a maintenance site. "We do not fly with one of these tags on the aircraft," Carrick states. "It's strictly for visibility on the maintenance side, not in-flight tracking—so it's removed during the pre-flight inspection."

In addition to tracking assets, select active tag technologies enable AFGET to monitor the condition of assets that are vulnerable to destructive environmental conditions, such as excessively high or low temperature and humidity levels, as well as physical shock. Jet engines are a prime example, Carrick says, noting, "The engines must be kept at a set relative humidity to ensure that they're not damaged internally by moisture buildup."

GPS, meanwhile, can supply AFGET with detailed information regarding an asset's operational status and history. "The GPS devices designed for our larger vehicles can tie into the asset's computer system," Carrick says, "to report on things like engine RPM, mileage, fuel level and things of that nature." AFGET's GPS technology is currently being installed to cover many vehicles that support aircraft maintenance, such as tugs, cranes and loaders, but no aircraft.

Learning Lessons

Although Carrick says he is pleased by AFGET's reception within the aviation maintenance community, he notes that success did not immediately fall into his team's lap. The developers had to overcome a series of challenges, he says, including reader and tag placement, durability and safety issues.

According to Carrick, placing interrogators within facilities involved mixing science and art with a good deal of trial and error. "We had to consider everything from the physics of radio waves and large metal machines—which love to play havoc on signal paths—to keeping the infrastructure out of the way for normal duties and making everything as unobtrusive as possible," he says. Each building, Carrick notes, had to be approached differently, based on its layout, height and wall composition, as well as on the machinery and metal objects located within, "plus, on how accurately you want to locate assets."

Optimal tag attachment was another challenge, Carrick adds. "We did learn some lessons on methods of attachment," he says. "Not that anything we did would ruin or destroy the tag, but we discovered that placement was crucial, and for everything we track, we had to learn whether to place it on the top, on the side or wherever for maximum effectiveness."

Durability was yet another concern. "We have a repaint facility, a pressure washer and acid baths that we needed to take into consideration," Carrick says. "Parts and their tags will go through these things, so we have to use tags that are rated to tolerate these processes." AFGET's most widely used tags, produced by WhereNet, "are designed to be durable enough to withstand the majority of our environments and still be cost-effective," Carrick says.

Making certain that tags and readers would not pose a fire or shock threat—particularly in open-fuel areas—was another topic that needed to be addressed. "I.S., which stands for 'Intrinsically Safe,' is a very popular certification to have on your items," Carrick says. The I.S. certification process includes making sure technologies are not combustible, electrically unsound or liable to fall off, and that they have no extruding parts that could hurt people or equipment.

Even deciding which assets to tag proved challenging for the developers of a system that can track almost anything, Carrick says. "Do I really need to track pencil erasers?" he asks. "Probably not, but I may want to spend a few dollars tracking a $250,000 tug that is used to move aircraft." Each asset had to be analyzed, he adds, to determine whether tagging that object would ultimately save money, enhance safety or provide some other type of tangible benefit. "There are almost always opportunities," he says. "It just depends on the analysis."

Reflecting on AFGET's track record to date, Carrick says he is proud of the system he created, and that he's particularly satisfied by how AFGET has been able to adapt to so many applications and situations. "I guess it's the unique privilege of saying we can interface with almost any hardware," he indicates. "We have designed the system in such a way that it is adaptable to accept new technologies."

The 78th and AIT are now setting their sights on turning AFGET into a global technology. Certain aspects of the system, Carrick notes, are currently under consideration for becoming a standard asset-tracking solution across the entire Air Force. "We have engaged the Air Force-level equivalent of our office," he says, "and they're considering it for integration into the Air Force standard approach. As far as the Air Force goes, just look at how we did logistics yesterday, and compare that to today. Just imagine how we will enhance the process tomorrow."