Beyond Baggage

Aviation RFID gets ready to soar

The use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) for air travel brings one connection immediately to mind: keeping track of passengers’ baggage. The use of RFID to reduce the rate of lost bags and improve the overall efficiency of the baggage handling process has received much media and industry attention. As it turns out, however, suitcases are only the beginning.

Indeed, RFID — which uses tags that transmit data to readers using low-energy radio waves — has proven itself useful at keeping tabs on luggage. Boeing and FedEx used Motorola equipment to prove its viability in 2004 tests, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of passive tags on aircrafts in May 2005. Hong Kong International Airport and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport have been successful early adopters of RFID baggage tracking systems.

Now, RFID is moving into other parts of the aircraft and other facets of the industry. While some physical and regulatory hurdles remain before it can be fully adopted, the technology is showing considerable promise.

Aircraft parts
The May 2005 FAA ruling also permits operators to use passive RFID tags on aircraft parts. The federal government requires individual tracking of parts and their maintenance histories, and the current industry standard for compliance uses bar codes.

In the wake of the ruling, Boeing mandated RFID tagging for 2,000 parts in its new 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to enter service in 2010. Manufacturers must affix ultra-high frequency (UHF) tags to the parts before shipping them to Boeing, and airlines who buy the planes will be able to encode the maintenance data directly on the tags.

Bar code readers require line-of-sight access to their tags, which makes it hard to use them in the cramped mechanical and avionics spaces of an aircraft. In some cases, crews even have to use mirrors to see part numbers, which they key in by hand. Plus, bar code reads are only 75 to 80 percent accurate.

In contrast, passive RFID allows users to improve their daily processes and productivity. For example, crews can scan all the parts in a section of the plane in a single sweep. RFID removes both bar code and human error from the data entry process, and averages better than 99 percent accuracy. In the shop, a mechanic can determine a part’s history even if there is no access to a database, because the information is there in the tag. Between flights, a ground crew can save valuable turnaround time by using hand-held RFID scanners to account for tagged life jackets and emergency equipment as required by law.

Other industry forays into RFID parts tagging have been ground-based. In Hamburg, Germany, Siemens teamed with Airbus for a successful test of RFID in tracking materials used to paint and fit out its new A380 passenger planes. Goodrich Aviation Technical Services, the largest third-party provider of aviation maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services, is taking a hard look at the possible implementation of RFID in its Everett, WA, facility, which processes more than 175,000 parts per year.

The prospects for RFID management of aviation parts include the same supply chain efficiencies that RFID has brought to other industries. The technology can also enhance security and safety by verifying compliance with foreign object detection (FOD) zones around aircraft undergoing maintenance.

Unit Load Devices (ULDs), the specially shaped cargo units designed to speed the loading and unloading of aircraft cargo spaces, carry goods of every description and value. ULDs are also valuable themselves, whether owned by a single carrier or shipper or shared through multilateral agreements.

The Luxembourg-based carrier Cargolux reported losing 2 percent of its ULDs in 2003, and Lufthansa and Air France lose 5 to 6 percent of them each year. In the most striking cases, people near airports in developing countries have even adopted ULDs as housing. Many of these losses are the result of tracking breakdowns. Cargolux officials estimate that reducing its ULD loss rate by 1 percent each year would save €60,000 (almost $80,000) in direct costs, not counting staff time, insurance costs, and the cost of keeping extra units at each station.

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