RFID and Baggage Tracking

Today I learned a lesson that I hope never to learn again. When you have an idea that you believe in go for it!

Today I read on the Slashdot website that ZDNet did a review of the Qantas airlines RFID baggage tracking system (Q Bag Tag). The post was not a favorable review of this system but non the less I was disappointed in my lack of follow through on a previous idea. Several years ago while I was at the Las Vegas RFID conference I heard from the team that
implemented the baggage handling system for the Las Vegas airport system. The system was one of the first to come online for the major airports and was the only one to publicly talk about it. The system was deployed to be completely internal airport focused. The baggage tag they wrapped on the luggage handle included an embedded RFID tag. Once scanned it would be tracked through the system until it was loaded on the plane. None of this was advertised to the traveler.

After leaving the conference I was sitting in that same airport thinking about the system that was handling my bag and a thought came to me. The airport could open the system up to its customers and reduce cost at the same time. If the customer could purchase a RFID brick to place inside their luggage that would be scanned on arrival. Prior to this the customer would have registered the id number on a secure web portal and paid either a per trip fee or if a frequent flyer a monthly fee for that id number. The customer would provide all the contact information for trip along with the final destination.

Now what does the customer get for this fee? The customer would be provided with a smartphone application that would tell them were their bag was in the process. So while you are sitting on the plane you could see that your bag was just loaded into the compartment below. When you have to change planes you won’t have to worry the entire flight that your bag did not make the flight with you. If your bag was pulled to the side and physically inspected you would also know so that you can take a closer look before you leave the airport. This will allow you time to recover before you get to the hotel only to find out that your bag was inspected and the inspector confiscated your shampoo.

What does the airport get? They would be able to outsource the tracking software and hardware support to an airport contracted company. The entire infrastructure would be paid for by fees collected from the customer. For the customers that did not purchase the service an RFID tag would still be embedded on the baggage tag but the customer would not be able to track the bag. The cost of this tag would be covered by the paying customers.

I feel confident that Qantas will fix their problems and the system will be successful if done right. It’s a great use of the technology and shows promise and cost savings for this industry. What I’m curious about is how open will this system be to the customer? After talking with several people about the idea of tracking our bags through the airport system the main problem found was the TSA allowing it. We all know how tight security has been for the airlines and this process would undergo scrutiny to the level of craziness and could be shutdown the day after the capital expense was put out. This is too risky of a proposal considering this would cost hundreds of millions of dollars just to get the infrastructure in place.

**** UPDATE ****

Here is a photo of the RFID tag placed on my wife’s luggage when she left the Las Vegas Airport.


2 thoughts on “RFID and Baggage Tracking

  1. The RFID chip technology, including what Qantas uses which is called Q-tags are a real problem with the baggage areas. What Qantas has not told people is that the technology is not new, in fact Vegas and San Antonio trialed it first years ago and they had no choice but to scrap it due to too many ongoing problems. Here’s the low down on this so called fantastic system. The Q-tags that Qantas uses are a disc which has absolutely no info written on it. No name, no destination, no flight details. NOTHING. The only way to find out where the bag is going is to use a scanner which reads the tag and comes up on the scanners lcd screen. Great in theory except the scanners in use require a lot of battery power to scan rfid chips, much more than the familiar bar code tags so batteries run low and need to be charged frequently which results in battery being worn out over time. 2nd, there is a lot of frequency distortion due to the amount of frequencies and microwaves floating around the area so the scanner sometimes cannot read the tag, or in a lot of cases, the tag simply stops working and cannot be read. 3rd, there are screens placed around the baggage belt which read the tags so that the flight details come up on the screen and you can scan the bag to the right flight, however, when you have multiple bags on the belt there is a vast amount of flight details coming up on the screen meaning you have no idea which bag is which so you scan every bag hoping to pick the right one. Slows down the work process and therefore has potential to delay flights or in most cases, bags simply miss the flight. 4th, transfer bags connecting onto other flights is the biggest problem and is the cause of 53% of missed or missing bags in the world. When a Q-tag comes along with no details on it unlike the barcodes which do, you have no idea where that bag is going and if the connection is tight, then it just makes it that much harder. Yeah you do have a scanner, IF you can find one that works, IF the q-tag is working and IF the battery in the scanner is charged enough to read it. Working in the baggage area, I see these problems everyday and it’s getting worse. Qantas wont pay to fix or replace scanners and what was once a simple job of reading whats on the tag has now become a lengthy fustrating process that only creates more work rather than lessen it. It might potentially save a few mnutes of time for a passenger checking in but when you get to your destination and you have no bag, then you have to wonder if it is worth it at all. Save yourself some hassle, request a barcoded bag tag instead and then maybe Qantas will wake up and realize it’s a failed technology that simply does not belong in the airline industry

    • Max, Thanks for your response but I have to disagree on a few points you made. As far as I know Las Vegas airport has not scrapped the RFID system, I was unaware that San Antonio had a similar system so I’m not sure the status. I fully agree with the implementation of limited data on RFID tags based on the security concern involved. The ID in RFID should be just that, simple identification data that allows you to pull data from a more secure system. It may seem fine for an RFID system to store the same information that is kept of the baggage tag but by opening that door you now give someone with no security knowledge the great idea to add additional data to the tag without understanding the consequences of their actions. Next you will start seeing passport information, security risk data, digital photos and much more focused personal data stored on a chip that can not possibly secure it well enough. Just look at how many times the NXP NFC tags have been hacked for the masstransit systems on the east coast.
      I do agree with you on some of the infrastructure issues still needing some work. The longevity of the battery on the readers does need to be worked on but that will come with advances in battery technologies.
      The way LasVegas implemented it was mainly to automate the belt system. They did not fully remove the bar code system so it was a kind of hybrid baggage tracking, which is very smart in my opinion.

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