At its Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles, NASA and its contractors use lots of chemicals when developing and servicing aircraft. Many are corrosive, prone to exploding when mixed with other chemicals, or hazardous to human health and the environment. Yet, they are spread across large areas, located at NASA, Air Force, and contractor hangars, in staging areas on runways, and on the desert floor.
NASA had used bar codes on chemical containers and had relied on staffers at the dispensaries to scan each chemical and record the amount dispensed and to whom it was dispensed. But with budget cuts for its operations staff, NASA needed a more efficient approach, says Tom Ambrose, environmental and safety officer at Dryden Flight Research Center.
So the agency deployed RFID tags on all its containers. It also put readers in various storage lockers, which weigh the containers to track usage and make sure the right material is stored in each locker. This process helps avoid dangerous combinations by comparing the chemicals' actual weights with their expected weights. At entrances to work areas, the agency has placed Intermec RFID portal readers to monitor what chemical containers come in or leave, as well as with whom, which is assessed by reading RFID tags on employee badges.
The Dryden system is connected to an Oracle-based database and an asset control application called the Hazardous Materials Management System. It takes inventory every few seconds at all locations and uses that information to determine what chemical containers are where and with whom and then correlates that status to the process rules, Ambrose says. This helps ensure that chemicals don't end up in the wrong place, get used by unqualified or unauthorized technicians, or get taken out of the facility altogether. (Frequent checking helps overcome the occasional blip in reading a tag that leads to false alarms; the system is programmed to ignore instances in which a container seems to disappear for a few seconds but alerts security staff if it doesn't reappear after a few cycles.)
The automated system allows NASA to get by with fewer staff members, and Ambrose is now exploring whether the automated system will allow Dryden to make some chemicals available through self-service automated kiosks, which would cut down on technicians' travel time when retrieving commonly used chemicals from depots.
By combining this data with information on container weight from storage lockers, the system can also detect how much of each material has been used, which helps fine-tune replenishment. NASA is trying to reduce the amount of chemical material it orders and stores, given that the disposal of unneeded or expired chemicals often costs more than the chemicals themselves, Ambrose says.
Ambrose expects the next stage will be to move to Generation 2 RFID tags, which provide authentication, thereby allowing NASA to control who is authorized to read specific information on the tags. His concern is that as chemicals are shipped to or from NASA on public highways, terrorists could read the earlier-generation tags and figure out what chemicals are in the trucks. Through authentication, NASA systems would have full access to the information; public safety officials such as police would have access only to basic information, such as how to isolate the material in case of an accident; others would have no access whatsoever.
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