Wireless net boosts shuttle operations

Before the space shuttle Discovery rocketed into space late last month, scores of NASA workers used a wireless computer network to track the thousands of pieces of equipment needed to launch the craft.

Using a wireless local-area network built with technology from Intermec Technologies Corp., NASA regularly tracks an estimated 300,000 pieces of equipment, from wrenches to diagnostics equipment to special platforms used for working on the shuttle. The equipment is scattered among buildings across Kennedy Space Center, which sits on nearly 50 square miles of land on Florida's eastern coast.

In the early 1980s - in the infancy of the shuttle program - finding, repairing and using the equipment meant relying on human memory and word of mouth, said Patrick Carlton, an operations manager for NASA shuttle contractor United Space Alliance. The process was time-consuming. "We could spend three to four hours just looking for a piece of equipment to work on," Carlton said.

Wireless LAN Increases Efficiency

In recent years, however, the space center has put in place the Intermec-based wireless LAN, so workers can find the equipment they need in only minutes, according to Carlton. The wireless network enables workers to record new locations when equipment is moved or to find equipment when other NASA workers are using it. "We're able to update [in] real time the location of [ground-support equipment]," Carlton said.

The wireless network comprises about 100 Intermec wireless handheld devices through which users can transmit information or queries about equipment to Intermec "repeaters" spread across the space center. Those repeaters then forward the information to a central database used to maintain and update information on the ground-support equipment, according to Mark Colborn, Intermec's program manager for NASA.

The handheld devices capture data using a built-in bar code reader that scans inventory labels on the NASA equipment. Workers also can input data by using a keypad on the device. The data moves across the network at 900 MHz.

Colborn said emerging Intermec wireless handheld products will operate at two frequencies: 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz. The 2.4 GHz frequency lets customers send more data and send it faster.

The wireless industry recently has developed product standards for 2.4 GHz, and the demand for those products is increasing, according to Mack Sullivan, director of the Wireless LAN Alliance, an industry consortium. "The applications are starting to broaden as the data rates are increasing," he said.

The Intermec network will allow Kennedy Space Center to continue supporting old handheld devices while taking advantage of the new frequencies, Colborn said.

For now, operating at 900 MHz suffices for the center, according to Carlton. Although workers are tracking thousands of pieces of equipment, those pieces are tracking primarily the location and description of the equipment, not detailed documents that require a lot of bandwidth, he said.

Kennedy Space Center employees take advantage of wireless technology for a number of other applications. For example, workers at the space center use wireless devices to share data collected in laboratories and to transmit video images across the complex.

Wireless communications "has become very popular in the past few years, and I think we're going to see more and more of it," said Steve Schindler, spectrum manager for Kennedy Space Center.

So far, the surging popularity of wireless networks has not created major problems for managing spectrum across the center, but Schindler said that as wireless data becomes more common at Kennedy Space Center, the possibility of one wireless network interfering with another increases. "As you get more and more of these devices into one area, you're going to run into more problems," he said.

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