December 2004/January 2005 
Volume 03, Issue 8 
Commercial Airplanes

History goes with them

Radio frequency ID tags assist maintenance efforts


History goes with themAn airplane mechanic walks through a plane parked at an airport while watching the screen on a handheld device. He's receiving status reports from key airplane components, including their maintenance history and required repair schedule. Noticing that a part is nearly ready for replacement, he contacts the repair shop at the plane's next destination so mechanics there can ensure there's a new part on hand and can install it when the plane arrives.

Sound like science fiction? This scenario is close to becoming reality. Radio frequency identification tags will store and transmit information about a part: manufacture date, part number, hours in service, repair and modification history—among other information.

RFID tags—which have a microchip embedded within them—are seen as the next generation of bar-code labels. They will make it easier to track and repair parts throughout their life cycle, prevent substandard parts from making it into service (or if they do, make it easier to track and replace them), and help airlines reduce parts inventories. Parts records will be more accurate and data-entry errors will be reduced because the data will be electronically read and transmitted. That means airplanes will see fewer out-of-service hours due to parts unavailability, and regulatory agencies will be better able to trace the history of parts.

Airlines "can improve processes by knowing the exact location of parts," said Nick Evans, global lead, emerging technology at Bearing Point, a consulting and systems integration firm. "By uniquely identifying individual parts, they will be able to create electronic audit trails and maintenance histories. This will help eliminate the counterfeiting of parts and cut down on the labor needed to comply with FAA paperwork regulations."

Boeing and Airbus helped define aviation industry standards for RFID tags, and the Air Transport Association recently released an update to SPEC 2000, its industry-wide standard for machine-readable bar-code labeling of parts, to include the new standards.

How they work

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags consist of three parts: tag, antenna and reader. Currently available tags contain a microchip, about the size of a piece of glitter, which can store up to 10,000 bits of information, far more than the 256-bit chips currently in use at retail stores.

Passive tags—such as those used in the retail industry—must be deactivated at the checkout counter or they will trigger an alarm when passing through readers at the store entrance.

The aviation industry also is studying passive RFID tags that have no power source and are activated by a signal from a reading device. Since these tags do not continuously emit signals, they do not interfere with an airplane's systems.

Unlike the current bar code labels, RFID tags can be read without having to dismantle bulkheads or panels and, depending on the frequency, can be read from as far away as 30 feet.

To inform customers and suppliers, Boeing and Airbus held three Global Aviation RFID forums in 2004 and will host more in 2005. These meetings provided information on testing and certification schedules and explained how each of the airplane manufacturers will accomplish the move from bar codes to RFID tags.

To see if the tags would affect airplane systems and could withstand a jetliner's heavy workload, Boeing in February completed a test of RFID tags on an MD-10. After the plane flew 18 hours a day for 90 days, the tags caused no electromagnetic interference and there was no corruption of the data on the chips.

Ken Porad, Boeing program manager for the Automated Identification Program, said Boeing is testing thin RFID bar code labels with a special insulated backing that helps shield the chip from interference from the metal surface. The tag is applied to the metal part rather than being embedded into the surface.

The next few years will be busy for Porad as he continues working with customers, suppliers, regulatory agencies and various Boeing organizations. Porad expects the Federal Aviation Administration to certify ground use of passive 13.56 MHz tags by the end of 2004 (Boeing chose to test this frequency, as it's the only frequency standard currently agreed to in every country in the world). Among other key activities that will command Porad's attention:

  • Testing RFID tags on composite materials
  • Working with suppliers to help them understand the benefits of RFID technology
  • Working with airlines to study ultra-high frequency tags, which can be read from a greater distance than 13.56MHz tags can
  • Preparing Boeing processes and standards for use of RFID tags
  • Promoting development of improved chips capable of storing more data

With RFID technology, Porad said he could foresee the day a part could be precisely tracked through its entire life cycle: "The technology could populate a database that, at any time during the life cycle, would enable airlines to know exactly where the part is."


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