The skies might actually become a little friendlier in the future. Boeing is currently seeking approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to embed active RFID tags on its aircraft. If it succeeds, Boeing would be able to use tags to monitor maintenance schedules, which might eventually mean fewer travel delays due to equipment failure.
Boeing and FedEx are in the early stages of an in-service evaluation of active RFID tags embedded on major parts of an MD-10 freighter. The aircraft has been flying regular routes at 39,000 feet since mid May as part of a test to determine whether active RFID tags will interfere with airplane communications.
During the first 90 days of the pilot program, 40 active RFID tags that have been embedded into various sections of the plane are transmitting a signal every three seconds 24/7. During the final 30 days of the four-month trial, 10 additional tags with eight kilobytes of read/write memory will be read and encoded with data. During that time, FedEx mechanics will use a portable data terminal to read and write inspection data to the tags each time the plane returns to a hangar at FedEx's base in Memphis.
Although Boeing is working with competitor Airbus to deploy standards for active RFID, Boeing is the first to put active tags on an airplane that transmit signals during flight. "We're laying the foundation by doing this evaluation," says Kenneth Porad, Boeing's RFID program manager. "We're pretty proud of that."
Though he emphasizes that the trial is still in the early stages and FAA approval is months away, Porad says he's enthusiastic about the potential for active tags in the airline industry. For example, he says, active tags could be incorporated into sensor systems on airplanes that could send a signal if a temperature reading for a shipment of perishable goods deviated from a specified range. In addition, Boeing's aftermarket maintenance programs could benefit from the use of tags to improve parts traceability and parts lifecycle management.
The test will be completed in mid- September, but Boeing has no plans to embark on a massive tagging effort right away. Once the test is finished, Porad says, it could still take several months before the FAA approves active RFID tags for use in aviation applications.
TheFAA has already approved the use of passive RFID tags on airplanes. In fact, when Boeing finishes production of its new 787 Dreamliner aircraft, approximately 2,100 parts will carry RFID tags. About 50 Boeing suppliers are supplying parts with RFID tags. The tags will be used primarily on life-limited or time-controlled parts and emergency equipment.