RFID-Enabled Autonomous Logistics Management (REALM) (RFID Logistics Awareness) - 06.27.18

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ISS Science for Everyone

Science Objectives for Everyone
The International Space Station (ISS) is home to thousands of items both large and small, from everyday personal supplies to complex pieces of equipment crucial for scientific experiments. To prevent them from floating away in microgravity and getting lost, they are sometimes secured in containers attached to the walls, and in other instances they are stored in cargo bags that might be stacked two or three deep. The RFID-Enabled Autonomous Logistics Management (REALM) (RFID Logistics Awareness) investigation tests a radio-based inventory control system to keep track of everything inside the football-field-sized ISS. Some aspects of the technology are commonly used on Earth, but other aspects are experimental in nature.
Science Results for Everyone
Information Pending

The following content was provided by Patrick W. Fink, Ph.D., and is maintained in a database by the ISS Program Science Office.
Experiment Details

OpNom: RFID Logistics

Principal Investigator(s)
Patrick W. Fink, Ph.D., NASA JSC, Houston, TX, United States

Prashant Shenoy, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, United States

NASA Johnson Space Center, Avionic Systems Division, Houston, TX, United States
University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, MA, United States

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
Technology Demonstration Office (TDO)

Research Benefits
Space Exploration

ISS Expedition Duration
March 2016 - August 2018

Expeditions Assigned

Previous Missions
Information Pending

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Experiment Description

Research Overview

  • RFID, or radio frequency identification, is a wireless technology with the potential for significant savings and increased reliability and safety in space operations.
  • Perhaps the most obvious savings for RFID Logistics Awareness relate to the application of inventory management.
  • A fully automated inventory management system is highly desirable for long-term sustaining operations in space environments.
  • This assertion is evidenced by inventory activities on the ISS, which represents the most extensive inventory tracking experience base in the history of space operations.
  • Over the long term, a combination of improved RFID technology and operational concepts modified to fully utilize the technology should result in space based inventory management that is highly reliable and requires very little crew time.


Inventory management for flight applications requires a high degree of control, as improperly substituted items and early depletion of certain items can be catastrophic. For most long duration missions, resupply efforts are inherently complex, expensive, and infrequent. To date, the most extensive space-based inventory management operation has been the International Space Station (ISS). To reduce the amount of crew time required for inventory audits on the ISS, NASA began investigating handheld RFID readers i n 2008 as a replacement for the optical barcode readers. Although the readers retain the optical barcode capability, it is anticipated that RFID will become the preferred approach for audits. The handheld RFID reader was the first step toward a crew-free inventory management system for later space vehicles.
Zone-Based RFID for Space Applications: Although use of the handheld reader represents a significant advancement in space-based inventory management, more automated methods are highly desirable due to the extreme demands on crew time. RFID zones within vehicles represent one possible step toward complete automation. Several key features are required for operational viability. A high read accuracy of tags is obviously one of these features. However, with passive tag systems applied at the item level, 100% read accuracy is not possible. For example, tags may be obscured by crew, metal closeouts, or other tags. Hence, for space based logistics management, a highly intelligent software application, referred to as complex event processing (CEP), is required to infer item location when real time reads are not available. The CEP system is also capable of other types of inferences, such as, for example, when incompatible items are collocated or improper tools have been selected for a procedure.
“Smart” Shelves, Enclosures, and Receptacles for RFID Space Applications: Similar to terrestrial applications, densely packed containers with high metal or liquid content present problems for RFID interrogation. “Smart” shelves, enclosures, and trash receptacles are examined as supplemental inventory tools to overcome some of these limitations. Currently, two smart drawers are flying on the space station with more installations planned. Advances in this area include size reduction of the internal antennas and enhanced read accuracy. RFID Logistics Awareness intends to explore all advance technologies such as these to improve inventory management for complex systems such as the ISS.

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Space Applications
Radio frequency identification uses tracking tags and electromagnetic fields to transfer information about objects. The tags transmit, through backscatter, electronic information about the object, and these emissions can be used to triangulate the object’s location. RFID can improve inventory systems to keep track of items on the space station, but may also be useful for monitoring the location of equipment on moons, asteroids or other planets. Variations of the technology could also help landers or rovers navigate unfamiliar terrain, and can be used to monitor temperatures, pressure, strain, or other environmental conditions.

Earth Applications
Businesses can use radio frequency ID systems to track products for sale, shipping or other uses. While traditional uses have been concentrated at box and palette level tracking through a supply chain, the space station effort aims to promote a location awareness of all objects. A fully automated inventory management system like the one in this investigation would further benefit commercial and government sectors on Earth. Smaller custom reader antennas with the performance capability of larger commercial counterparts are being explored.

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Operational Requirements and Protocols
The RFID Logistics Awareness readers will comprise two readers in each of Node 1, U.S. Lab, and Node 2 during this experimental phase. Each reader attaches to four antennas for a total of six readers and twenty-four antennas. The readers can be commanded to operate in a “verbose” mode, in which all interrogations are reported back to the CEP center on the ground, or in an “event” mode, in which only changes are reported. The readers will be on continuously, seven days a week. Data from each reader is collected via an ISS laptop and downlinked to a CEP processing center at JSC. Differentials with the IMS database will be reported to the ISS inventory stowage officers for further action.

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Decadal Survey Recommendations

Information Pending

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Results/More Information

Information Pending

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Related Websites

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