Read and Weep (for Joy)

Radio frequency identification (RFID) devices for aviation maintenance

Every now and again a technology comes along that is truly labor-saving and so simple to use that the beauty of it makes you want to weep with joy. As AMTs we spend a good deal of time documenting or verifying part numbers, serial numbers, expiration dates, and other maintenance data.

We know the challenge of reading small font numbers and letters with a flashlight and mirror while in various yoga positions. It is so very easy to transpose that 9 for a 6 and a shadow or small smear of grease will turn an S to a perfect 8. This data often creates extensive, sometimes redundant, paper files that must be stored and managed. RFID technology is good news for those who perform the endless routines of inspecting, researching, and recording critical data on components, rotables, and consumables especially in large fleets of airplanes.

RFID Integrated Solutions system

Automated identification technology (AIT) is the category of technologies used to automatically identify objects, collect data about them, and enter that data directly into computer systems (i.e. without human involvement). It can be used to identify, store, read, and integrate information in a variety of applications. We are familiar with and use many of these applications when we shop or buy consumer goods and services. RFID tags (rectangular) and contact memory button (CMB) (circular) are forms of AIT being introduced into the aviation maintenance environment. Boeing’s RFID Integrated Solutions combines RFID tags and CMBs installed on parts and components throughout an airplane. Boeing has contracted with Fujitsu to exclusively provide the hardware for the RFID Integrated Solutions program.

The passive RFID tags contain a microchip and antenna that emits radio signals when interrogated by a reader/writer using internationally recognized standard radio frequencies. A reader retrieves the data stored on an RFID tag and then passes the information in digital form to a computer system.

The RFID tag is similar to a UPC bar-code but offers other significant advantages. For example, tags store data that can be read even if they are hidden from sight, have both read and write capability, and can be used to simultaneously identify and read multiple tags. The low-memory RFIDs are 512-bit devices used to store configuration, presence, security, and serviceability data. This data may include part and serial numbers, date of manufacture, expiration date, and location on the airplane. High-memory RFID tags range from 8 kilobytes to 64 kilobytes and contain the same data plus maintenance history and the ability to add as much as 500 characters of re-writable free text.

High-memory contact memory buttons (CMB) range in capacity from 8 kilobytes to 4 gigabytes and are accessed by direct contact. Information written to or retrieved from the CMB could be part and serial numbers, manufacturing dates, change in configuration, identity or maintenance history, such as actions taken and conditions noted, change in custody, accountability, location, consumption, and trend data like “no fault found.”

Technicians use a wireless handheld scanner to read or type in the latest maintenance information held within the maintenance history blocks or on the scratch pad, a rewritable function that can be used to enter text or store photos or videos. All this data then becomes an electronic, rather than paper, record that travels with the airplane.

RFID certification

Boeing and Alaska Airlines joined together in 2011 to develop, test, and validate the reliability of the RFID technology in the aviation environment. The fully integrated and comprehensive product is currently being offered and reached “service-ready” status earlier this year. Alaska Airlines is the tentative launch customer for the new program. Boeing also recently began offering a stand-alone emergency equipment management product.

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