RFID keeps Virgin planes in the air

Radio tagging lets Virgin Atlantic get more value from its fleet of aeroplanes, and also helps BP keep tabs on its gas cylinders

Two of the UK's largest companies are using RFID tags to make their businesses more efficient, but in rather different ways.

Gareth Lewis, IT services director at Virgin Group, said on Monday that RFID was helping Virgin Atlantic to keep its planes in the air longer.

"Every part of the aeroplane is tagged with RFID. Now, we can point a gun at it and take a snapshot of all its component parts — it's a really quick and efficient way of seeing what's in the plane," explained Lewis, appearing on a panel at the UK Technology Innovation & Growth Forum.

"If you can call up all the details of the plane's engine, and see that you can keep it flying for another day or week before you service it, that can boost your efficiency," Lewis added.

Virgin announced in August 2005 that it had started trialling RFID to track parts at its Heathrow Airport warehouse.

RFID tagging involves tiny wireless-enabled chips, which can be fitted to an object and used to track it.

Energy giant BP has begun using RFID to track its train carrages in the US, which are used to transport chemicals around the country. Back in 2003, it sent its top executives on a training course to learn about the potential of radio tagging.

But, as technology director Ken Douglas revealed, the company did have its doubts about deploying RFID tags on its LPG cylinders, which are used for domestic and outdoor cooking.

"The beer industry has a habit of putting RFID on its kegs. So they asked why we didn't put them on our LPG cylinders. We initially said 'no chance', but it's now one of our best recent moves, letting us tell one gas cylinder from another and track where it's been," said Douglas, who also appeared on the panel.

The UK Technology Innovation & Growth Forum is taking in place in London, and is organised by the European Technology Forum, a sister company of ZDNet UK.