RFID – community lookup services for more efficient use of RFID technology

In our last edition of the .aero newsletter we talked about the challenge set by RFID community services. This time, we will look more closely at community lookup services needed for efficient systems integration between multiple business partners

We know that today RFID applications can process and track baggage/cargo at a given airport or by its carrier, but most projects today involve little integration between RFID systems of respective carriers. So  today's deployment of RFID technology will not help a bag stranded in a foreign airport find its way to its destination and a container will be only tracked when it moves through the premises of the airline/handling company which is involved in that particular tagging project . With no change in this approach, the air transport community will end up with a complex uncoordinated network of bilateral relationships, a system which is costly to operate and every change on the network very hard to manage.

It is clear that such a situation cannot last forever and that eventually standards and service evolve to create a virtual network for coordination and interaction between participants of the system. To extend this service beyond the boundaries of a handful of carriers or a few locations to that of all shared locations such as airports. To those that allow multiple business partners to securely interact with each other globally, an agreement is needed on standards and community services, such as directory service, to allow multiiple business partners to talk to each other.

The end result for the community would not only enhance customer services and operations but provide substantial economic benefits  realized from using shared standards and shared facilities.

What directory services are needed?

First lets take it one step further – let's have a look at the community service needed for operations such as tracking a suitcase or an aircraft parts across the globe; There are three question which a user may need to ask when exchanging data with third parties tracking and tracing a history of a suitcase or a spare part.

These are:

1. Where do I start my search to find out more about the item with an identifier 1234?

2. How can I find what happened to this item before it was sent to me?

3. How do I know to trust the system which is requesting data from me? 

Accordingly, there are three sets of community standards and services needed to answer those questions.

1. Static lookup service

Archimedes is famous to have said "give me a firm and immovable point in the universe and I will move the Earth". Static lookup service in the RFID area is the firm point for the universe of RFID data processing. The single objective of the service is to provide a network address for a system which holds more information about the identifier in question. Not more, not less, just the location of a service which knows more. When Auto ID labs at MIT first described the RFID processing technologies, they decided to select Domain Naming System as a backbone database for a static lookup service and gave it a new name - Object Naming Service (ONS). ONS standard further evolved under the auspices of EPC Global, an industry standard body focusing in implementation of Auto ID technologies in various industry sectors.

2. Serial-level lookup service

Serial lookup service is a very important element for anyone who needs to track and trace an aircraft part or a baggage item across geographical and business boundaries. While the systems of each participants are likely to retain data about what happened with the object while it was in their care, the serial lookup service is the glue which will allow it to link series of events as they happened across multiple parties and geographical boundaries.

In the EPC Global context, this is called a discovery service. While the need for such a service is clear, the standard for the service is yet to be developed. Benefits of this service are obvious when multiple players need to communicate with each other and today's piecemeal deployment of the RFID technology is not yet far enough advanced to make effective use of the service. The air transport industry as well as the pharmaceutical industry are examples of a community which will require the function earlier than others because of the nature of their business and regulatory requirements associated with traceability of object history. 

3. Authentication services

We will not go to into the details of this complex area in this article but the reader will no doubt agree that access to various systems whether lookup service or system which hold the actual information must be tightly controlled and all information shared between the parties must be possible to authenticate. Lookup and directory services needed to ascertain 3rd party's digital identity will be needed for any such system to be put in place. Industry standards are being created but groups such as ATA's Digital Security working group and initiatives such as Certipath will be needed.

But under what conditions would the community participate in a model of coordination and reliance on certain community services, and to whom would they turn to create this model ?

Without doubt the community would like to retain a degree of  flexibility and choice when it comes to the  implementation of a such a community service. They would look for one or more independent  bodies  with whom to work in partnership to  define the service model and then to whom would they trust to operate the community aspect of their  RFID system. Where possible, they would look for multiple service providers using open common standards, and ensure that only minimum necessary data is shared.

Step forward .aero

This is where .aero  raises it hand and reminds the community that this is a function well suited to the role of this community initiative. Although .aero is not involved in the implementation of RFID technology as such, it does serve the community as a whole  by providing the  necessary policy and technology platform on which to create and maintain policies relating to the allocation of digital identifiers for the use by the air transport community and provision of certain lookup services.

By working with the leading aviation organizations such as IATA, ACI,  CANSO and many others, .aero  is well positioned to obtain the consensus needed to develop such policies.