RFID Lets NASA Monitor Hazardous Materials

Test of system is a success, but funding issues put planned network on hold
A successful test of radio-frequency identification tags and tiny, intelligent sensors has set the stage for a real-time network that would continuously monitor hazardous chemicals stored in five National Aeronautics and Space Administration facilities at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. The network, which NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center hopes to deploy this year, would help detect and react to break-ins, chemical thefts, and dangerous spills.

The NASA Dryden Flight Research Center is spearheading the program, dubbed ChemSecure, to replace antiquated standalone systems that transmit information to separate databases and departments.

Here's how ChemSecure would work: RFID tags are applied to chemical containers in the center's main facility before they're transported to nearby storage buildings. Each passive RFID tag, made by Intermec Technologies Corp., has a unique identifier linked to a database record of details, such as steps to take in the event of a spill. Readers on gates leading into the storage areas monitor and record traffic flow, and inside the storage entrance, readers collect the identifiers from the tags. Sensors located throughout the facilities measure heat, weight, and motion, as well as detect chemicals leaking out of a container.

An Oracle 10g Edge Server provides middleware that filters data from RFID tags and sensors and distributes it to the appropriate applications. It also cross-checks data from the tags and sensors with information in the research center's Web-based hazardous-materials-management system, a database where information on chemicals is stored. If conflicts are found, the Oracle middleware triggers an instant message to the appropriate NASA Dryden employees through Nextel phones or E-mail.

The 90-day test was completed in November, but putting ChemSecure into production depends on the research center getting enough money. The center's 2005 budget was cut by about $41 million, to $161 million, to help support NASA's space-shuttle program. The availability of funding should become clearer in the coming months, says Vincent Kinsey, senior information system manager for the NASA Dryden.

ChemSecure wouldn't be cheap. It'll cost $30,000 to tag each vehicle that transports chemicals and $450,000 for a sophisticated alert system that notifies personnel that a site has reached its storage capacity. An electronic waste manifest equipped with sensor technology to identify all inventory placed on trucks is estimated at $500,000.

To keep down costs, NASA engineers leveraged existing applications in the system. "We don't want to replace the entire chemical-management system with new equipment and computers," says Ralph Anton, chemical program manager for the research center. "It has to work with existing servers and databases to avoid major changes to the IT infrastructure and have little impact on existing business processes."

Still, ChemSecure has lofty goals. Anton wants the program to deliver an integrated, real-time information network for government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and emergency responders such as Environmental Protection Agency inspectors, police, and fire officials. "Our team is a bunch of dreamers," Anton says. "The wish list for the project ranges from the possible to far-fetched."

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