RFID tags take flight at Boeing, Airbus

RFID tags to reduce aircrafts' time on the ground

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 and Airbus 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 C$15 (AUD$17) to C$20 (AUD$23). The plane's first flight is expected next year.

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Nestor E. Arellano

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