RFID tags take flight at Boeing, Airbus

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A cursory inspection of the lifejackets stashed under commercial airline seats could add as much as 30 minutes to an aircraft’s time on the ground.

Figure in baggage handling, refueling, and safety checks and it’s easy to understand why passengers spend so much time thumbing through magazines at airport lounges, when they should be strapping their seatbelts on the plane.

That’s a situation researchers at Boeing Co. and Airbus S.A.S. are trying hard to change. They are working on a series of programs to install radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on airplane parts to speed up parts inventory and lifespan management, thereby reducing flight delays.

“These tags will allow ground crews to check the remaining life span of parts without having to open access panels or do visual inspection,” said Kenneth Porad, program manager, automated identification program at Boeing.

RFID tags have a wide range of applications in various industries, and this particular project isn’t a first for the two companies.

In 2001, Boeing began tagging aircraft tools and tool boxes with RFID microchips that contained history, shipping, routing and customs information. Airbus did the same for its ground equipment and tools four years ago.

Early this year, Boeing launched a program to tag time-controlled, life-limited parts and replaceable units on its 7E7 Dreamliner aircraft. The “smart labels” contain a microchip that stores data such as part and serial numbers, manufacturer codes, country of origin, date of installation, and maintenance and inspection details.

Porad said before Boeing started using RFID tags, ground crew members had to inspect parts and check serial numbers visually. To find out when a certain part was last inspected, personnel had to look up written records.

Porad was speaking at the RFID Journal Live! Conference in Toronto last week.

In the pre-RFID days, he said, Boeing used to stamp numbers onto steel plates that were affixed to parts. This proved to be expensive in the long run because new plates had to be produced when part numbers changed.

Further more, unlike the RFID tags, the plates themselves could not contain any information, except serial numbers.

Under the RFID program, inspection crews armed with handheld readers that send out radio waves simply have to pass the devices over RFID tagged parts. The tags then transmit the data contained in the microchip. The readers have a range of 10 feet.

“It’s a read and write technology that can allow personnel, based on security clearance, to input data,” Porad said. This is particularly useful, he said, because service history will be contained in the tag as the part goes through its life cycle.

The Boeing 7E7 will have some 2,000 parts with RFID tags, each tag worth at least $15 to $20. The plane’s first flight is expected next year.

Airbus is conducting similar test with its A380 Super Jumbo airliner. The plane will have 10,000 RFID tags and is expected to take flight next May.

The tags will shave a substantial portion of time dedicated to ground inspection, both companies say.

For instance, Porad said, two crew members normally take up to 30 minutes to carry out the required inspection of onboard passenger lifejackets. “With the hand held readers and RFID tags, this now only takes six minutes.”

RFID tagging will help eliminate errors in tracking a part’s origin and will assist repair crews in determining the part’s specific application, according to Art Smith, president and CEO of Electronic Product Code global (EPCglobal) Canada, a non-profit organization developing industry standards for electronic products.

“Often manually written serial numbers on service logs can be easily misinterpreted. An electronic trail can precisely tell the repair crew which part should go where.”

The tags being installed in the Dreamliner cover a one- to four inch square area and contain up to 64,000 bits of data. The passive tags transmit signals at 860 to 960 megahertz when activated by an Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) reader.

The ceramic covered tags mounted on the jets engine will be able to handle temperature ranges from -40 degrees to 649 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile work is also progressing on the testing of active RFID tags.

While passive tags only transmit data when activated by readers, active tags can be programmed to send out signals at pre-determined intervals of when alarms are set off, according to Smith. “These will be event driven devices, which with the help of IP network technology will further improve aircraft part maintenance.”

For instance, parts with active RFID tags can immediately send out signals when temperature of stress levels it is exposed to exceed allowable limits.

Porad said Boeing and FedEx are testing how active tags can monitor conditions on an MD-10 air freighter.

The battery powered tags will contain a 915 megahertz microchip and will be readable from 200 feet.

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