New Jets Will Come Equipped With RFID

Tags on Boeing and Airbus aircraft will make it easier to track and replace parts

Next year, as many as 10,000 radio-frequency identification tags will take to the skies, affixed to everything from airline seats to brakes. The tags will contain serial numbers, codes, and maintenance history that should make it easier to track, fix, and replace parts.

It's all part of Airbus S.A.S's effort to put RFID tags in its A380, a 550-seat jet that will make its first flight in 2005 and fly commercially in 2006. Not to be outdone, Boeing Co. is using tags on many of the parts in its upcoming 7E7 Dreamliner, a smaller commercial jet that's set to fly in 2007 and be in service by 2008.

The initiatives aren't the companies' first use of RFID, but they represent aggressive plans to further leverage the real-time and detail capabilities of passive RFID. Five years ago, Boeing began equipping all its tools and toolboxes with RFID microchips that contained history and other data. Similarly, Airbus began tagging its ground equipment and tools four years ago.

Removable parts on the Airbus A380 superjumbo plane will have passive RFID tags affixed to them. -- Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/EPA

Removable parts on the Airbus A380 superjumbo plane will have passive RFID tags affixed to them.

Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/EPA
Airbus' A380 superjumbo airplane will have passive RFID chips on removable parts, which are replaceable units with short life cycles, says Jens Heitmann, senior manager of systems standardization, process, and methods at Airbus. That means tags will be affixed to passenger seats, which have a five-year life cycle, and brakes, which are usually changed every 1,000 landings, as well as thousands of other parts.

Airbus will continue to use text and bar codes to keep track of parts data, but RFID chips can be more quickly accessed with handheld scanners, Heitmann says. "We could use RFID to do routine checks before a flight, for example, making sure a life jacket is under each seat."

The supplier contracts for the Airbus A380 program have been finalized, and the company confirms that the airplane will have 10,000 RFID chips. Although details haven't been disclosed, Airbus plans to implement similar technology for maintenance and identification of removable parts on its A400M military transport aircraft, Heitmann says.

The 7E7 Dreamliner will get RFID "smart labels" on parts that must be replaced regularly. These labels will contain a microchip and an antenna and will store data, including part and serial numbers, manufacturer codes, country of origin, date of installation, along with maintenance and inspection information. This information can be useful in the maintenance of airplanes because the service history of a part is stored on the label as it goes thorough different stages of its life cycle, says Kenneth Porad, automated identification program manager at Boeing.

The labels will be reusable because they follow the next-generation specification being developed by EPCglobal Inc., the industry group overseeing many RFID standards. That'll make it easier for Boeing to keep up with changing parts numbers. Before bar codes, Boeing would stamp the numbers into steel plates affixed to parts. If a number changed, Boeing would have to stamp the new number into a new plate. "That wasn't cost-effective at all," Porad says. "When we moved to bar-coded name plates, they were still static. But our [part] numbers aren't static because they change all the time, so to support maintenance, we envision RFID to be the answer."

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