RFID vs. BLE inspection process for aviation emergency equipment

If you follow developments in the tech industry, you’re likely familiar with the terms Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Recently, you may have seen RFID in the aviation news, or you may have heard some airlines are using the technology for inspection of cabin emergency equipment and how the technology has allowed them to reduce inspection time to a matter of minutes while also increasing accuracy and reliability of the procedures; increasing safety and reducing aircraft on ground (AOG) time.

In any case, this article will answer a few questions you may have about RFID and BLE-based solutions for inspection of aircraft emergency equipment.

What are the differences between RFID and BLE solutions?

Short Answer:

By utilizing passive or active RFID technology, we can inspect hundreds of tagged items on each plane within minutes however it is an on-ground system due to its high power and cannot be used during the flight yet. BLE solution is an active and faster solution that can be used both on ground and in flight.

Long Answer:

Passive RFID tags that are normally used for aviation emergency equipment, operate at Ultra High Frequency (UHF) range of 860 MHz to 960 MHz. These tags do not have their own power source, instead they are powered by the electromagnetic energy transmitted from the RFID reader. Because the radio waves must be strong enough to power the tags, the reader power can be as high as 4W (EIRP). These passive RFID tags typically have a read range of few meters.

Passive sensor RFID tags are also a new technology, adding the ability to sense without a battery and detecting status or environmental changes. However they sacrifice the read range because of receiving and transmitting information to the reader using the limited RF energy of the reader.

RFID readers have different types: Fixed and Handhelds. RFID handheld readers enable the mobile workforce to track and manage inventory of tagged emergency equipment in the cabin. They typically are self-contained computers and have a screen.  RFID sled readers are new handhelds, becoming very popular with the increase of smart phone ownership and boom of app development. They don’t have a screen and the smart phone and the app act as a brain of the sled reader.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices operate within the license-free 2.4GHz Industrial Scientific Medical (ISM) band. Bluetooth Low Energy is intended to provide considerably low power consumption and cost while maintaining a longer read range. In these applications, a coin cell battery could provide 5-10 years of reliable operation.

BLE tags use their advertising functionality in which an advertisement message, in addition to the ID number can include an event or a measurement value such as open/close status.

As opposed to UHF RFID which requires high power readers, BLE only requires devices to have BLE installed in them, which many smartphones and tablets already have. The smartphones primarily act as receivers and make BLE form a highly accessible technology.

If we want to track assets as they move through a chokepoint, passive RFID is ideal because of low-cost tags; however flyable metal-mount tags are still few dollars with less capabilities and performance in compare to BLE tags.

If emergency equipment must be inspected within a cabin in flight and real time, BLE is the way to go.