FAA gives go-ahead to RFID

Radio tech to aid cargo, baggage tracking

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved radio frequency identification devices for use with planes on the ground.

The FAA has not yet cleared RFID for applications in flight because of concerns that its signals could interfere with avionics.

But the FAA's approval of RFID for planes on the ground will ensure greater efficiency and safety by allowing airlines to quickly repair parts and track cargo.

"Well, guys, the day has finally arrived," states an e-mail last week from John Dimtroff, an FAA aerospace engineer, to Boeing officials. "The passive RFID memo has been approved and signed by all. It is official!"

But FAA officials said the policy would not be posted on their Web site until early next week, after the policy is officially processed through the FAA's administrative control system.

A May 13 agency memo, which went to all FAA directorates and was signed by Dimtroff, states: "The use of passive-only devices is restricted to ground operations only, i.e., aircraft not in motion."

Boeing and FedEx had tested RFID tags on planes twice before the announcement. Those tests, coupled with Boeing lab trials and FAA reviews, showed that passive, on-ground RFID technology poses no safety risks.

"The Boeing position is that the use of passive RFID tags on on-ground planes will have no adverse effect on any installed systems or equipment on an airplane," Porad said. "There were zero failures on both tests."

RFID technology mostly benefits aircraft manufacturers and airlines, not the FAA. For example, RFID devices will likely facilitate quick maintenance on faulty parts with expiration dates such as onboard flight computers, the main landing gear and hydraulic pumps.

Boeing is exploring the use of 64K integrated smart labels that would have read-write memory, allowing mechanics to instantaneously access a part's serial number and date of manufacture. The labels would also include links to maintenance and fault-detection manuals and contain notes from mechanics about the part's service history.

FAA officials said RFID technology will help the aviation industry become more efficient and less costly because airlines can to track cargo, passenger baggage and aircraft components.

As the technology expands, FAA officials said the agency will examine security uses of RFID but declined to provide details.

The FAA RFID team's next step will be to develop guidelines for the use of active and battery-assisted RFID devices on commercial planes. Officials are estimating that research and studies to implement a policy will be completed by early 2006.

RFID experts do not foresee any safety or privacy issues — only potential RFID tag or reader malfunctions.

Nicholas Orlans, a principal engineer at Mitre, said RFID technology on planes has great potential and is not much of a leap from proven retail uses at stores such as Wal-Mart.

"Concerns of authentication and accurate chip reads and writes no doubt will be an important topic, along with interference and jamming," he added.

Working with passive RFID

Passive radio frequency identification technology works when an RFID reader comes near an RFID device and "wakes up" the tag, reflecting the tag's data back to the reader. "It's like shining a flashlight at a mirror and reflecting the light back," said Kenneth Porad, program manager for the Automated Identification Program at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

The Boeing tag consists of a 2-by-3-inch nameplate with a microchip connected to a circular or rectangular antenna inside.

Boeing mechanics currently read limited information from a stamped nameplate that may or may not have a bar code. They cannot store information on the bar code, and must instead link the nameplate's sparse information to a database at a separate location to retrieve a plane part's full repair history.

— Aliya Sternstein

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