Lost in space no more: NASA using UHF RFID to track items on the ISS

When most organisations manage their assets, they usually have gravity on their side. So even while tracking the location and status of items can be complex, at least items will tend to stay where they were last put until something, or someone, moves them on. Crew members on the International Space Station (ISS) have no such guarantees.

To tackle these challenges, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, together with the University of Massachusetts, have been investigating ways to improve item-level tracking, inventory and parts management with its RFID-Enabled Autonomous Logistics Management (REALM) program for everything from personal and medical supplies to complex scientific equipment in a football-field sized space station. It’s chronicled its efforts last month here.

The challenges are out of this world

The ISS is like nothing on earth. Accurate tracking of inventory and ensuring items are on-hand when needed is critical. After all, at more than 330 kilometers above our planet, crew members can’t easily order new or replacement parts – they have no option but to wait for the next supply mission. With that in mind, the ISS must be able to predict what items are necessary for each mission, ensure they’re onboard, and that crew members can quickly find them when needed.

Managing this, without gravity, is no easy task. When conducting inventory checks, crew members must remove and count each item from flight bags that are strapped to the walls – and which can be stacked two or three deep. What’s more, individual bags must be carefully opened and closed to ensure items do not drift away. Over the years crew members have spent exhaustive time auditing items and conducting manual searches using one-at-a-time barcode scanners. NASA has estimated that lost crew time could cost more than US$1M each year. However, a UHF RFID-based system has the potential to reduce the time to inventory an item-filled flight bag from 20 to 30 minutes to about 20 seconds to complete.

Development and testing

The ISS first began testing handheld UHF RFID readers in 2008 to replace a barcode system; this was a step in the right direction. However, carrying handheld readers around the station still placed demands on crew time. So, as part of the REALM investigation, a number of fixed RFID readers have been installed onboard. The system consists of ‘smart’ shelves, enclosures and receptacles which collect data from the items placed inside them. There are many more applications however. For example, on earth, products destined for the ISS can be tagged and tracked as they move through lifecycles, supply chains and in and out of storage.

Outcomes

Today many items are being successfully tracked on the ISS using a combination of handheld UHF RFID readers and smart drawers. The team intends to expand the system in future missions with the ultimate aim a fully-automated inventory management system for the ISS and other space vehicles. In that way, crew members will be out of the business of manually auditing equipment and supplies and able to re-invest more of their time into valuable in-space research that holds benefits for all of humanity.

Future expansion

In the future, NASA also hopes to deploy zone-based RFID to estimate the location of an asset when real-time data isn’t available or when an item may have inadvertently drifted to an unknown location on the ISS. In this instance, if a tag was read by one reader at a specific time, software can be used to predict the zone in which that tagged item is located, for example. This software could also identify problems such as tools located in incorrect zones.

Bringing intelligence to your own asset tracking proejcts

These interesting learnings from the ISS project can serve as a model for other organisations seeking automated item-level identification and inventory management in complex asset operations. Talk to Relegen about how an RFID-based asset intelligence system can improve the way you manage your assets, parts and supplies. You can reach us at sales@assetDNA.com or + 61 (0)2 9998 9000.