RFID has a lot of baggage

The history of computerized baggage systems could hardly be called smooth. The baggage systems at US airports alone lose about 3.5 million pieces of luggage every year.

Luggage handling systems at airports depend on the bar codes and numbers printed on luggage to route the bag to and from the right airplane. Automatic scanners can read upwards of 90 percent of all the bags, but about ten percent of the luggage tags are badly printed, obscured, crumpled, or otherwise damaged and have to be scanned manually with the same type of scanner used in supermarkets.

And yet, bags get lost costing travelers time, and the airlines about 60 dollars per bag.

The baggage systems at US airports alone lose about 3.5 million pieces of luggage every year, or the equivalent to six bags for every 1,000 passengers, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Denver’s international airport famously scrapped a USD 230 million computerized baggage handling system in 2005 after a decade of software problems. It included PCs and thousands of remote controlled carts on a 21-mile underground track.

Enter RFID
Radio Frequency Identification technology has been around for more than 50 years, and it has been touted as a viable option for airlines and airport baggage-handling systems.

After all, RFID chips need no battery, they are small – a quarter the size of a fingernail – so they can easily by attached to luggage.  RFID chips are passive and only transmit data when prompted by a radio transmitter.

Also, their cost have come down dramatically in recent years.

So far, the Las Vegas McCarran International Airport and the Hong Kong International Airport have committed to an RFID system for their baggage handling needs, and RFID is being widely tested at other airports. The airline industry association, the IATA, is currently trying to convince airlines and airports to use RFID tagging as a means of saving time and money.

“RFID tags allow more useful data to travel along with the bag,” said Franz-Josef Herchenbach, an engineer and project manager at the Siemens Airport Competence Center in Fürth, Germany, to the magazine Design News. The Center is basically a mock airport to test new technologies in airports, from checking in with a mobile phone to RFID tagging.

However, RFID faces also many challenges and the fact that IATA is a UN-run organization that has to get all countries to agree on a standard is not the least of them.  Also, the Coalition for Luggage Security recently stated that “RFID doesn’t eliminate the problem nor solve the security issue which should be at the forefront of all discussions on luggage.”

“Once a bar code label is created that’s it. You can’t update it without creating a new label,” said Herchenbach.

But bar codes still work reasonably well.

Accurate and fast
In theory, RFID baggage handling systems have the advantage of being 99.99 percent accurate because they do not require line-of-sight with an ‘interrogating’ machine like a bar code reader.  The real figures are much lower, though.

The inexpensive RFID tags that the airlines would be interested in using can’t be read through metal or water, or around the corner.

“And, let’s remember that humans are also made of water,” quips Pete Lowe, Chief Technology Officer, ASSA ABLOY Identification Technology Group (ITG)

Band-aid solution?
While RFID tracking can scan one item at a time, it can also be programmed to scan a whole palette of goods, or 300 bags on their way to Tokyo, for example.

But when things don’t go as planned – when a passenger doesn’t board the plane and his suitcase has to be removed – the RFID shows its limitations. According to Lowe, a person with a bar code scanner would be just as effective in finding the suitcase – if not more.

An RFID bag tag can carry information about the owner of the bag, airline, flight number, departure time and destination. In addition, they can ‘talk’ to a networked system and be updated with relevant information.

Because the tags can be written to, as well as read, RFID allows bags to be updated with, for example, changes to a passenger’s flight or security status.

The tug-of war between the RFID supporters and others still continues.

“RFID will not be the cure for lost luggage as much of the baggage-handling process will still be manual. This is a very costly system for a problem that the system is unable to solve. A bandaid is not what this problem requires, and knowing where the lost luggage is does not change how we feel as we stand with empty arms at the carousel,” said Richard A. Altomare, CEO of Universal Express.

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