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RFID & the lost baggage

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2007 12:44 am    Post subject: RFID & the lost baggage Reply with quote

The aircraft of today is the only type of transportation that can quickly deliver passengers from one point to another, especially, in cases of overseas transportation or points that are thousands of kms from each other. In all similar instances, it’s hard to vie with the aircraft to any other vehicles, at least until the bullet train is as widespread as the aircrafts. Therefore, it is not surprising that we are using aircrafts so much – during summer travel, for business trips and other necessities.

During each flight, we have some expectations:
First of all, we expect the security and safety of the flight. The airline companies are doing a lot in this area.
The comfort of the flight is second place and need to admit there are a lot of improvements needed here as well.
Third, we not only want to be safe and sound upon our arrival, we also expect our baggage to be there at the same time and in good condition. As it turns out, with this last case things are not so good. Here is one example. By the exchange program, a student from Los Angeles flew to South Africa to get some education. She used one of the well known airline companies with the connection in one of the well known airports. On arrival to South Africa she had discovered that her luggage was not delivered. Of course, she filled out the form, got a file number, but this was meaningless, all her clothes, textbooks, school and personal items gone with the baggage. A credit card given by the airline company with a very modest amount was not working. As a result, the girl spent the whole month for nothing – neither education nor rest (it was winter at that time in Africa). After this month she went back home carrying her backpack only. The baggage had not been found. [1]

There is another case. One Canadian had not received his luggage on arrival. He called an infinite number of times to the airport and several times went there in person. During one of his visits to the airport, he was allowed to search the lost luggage section. He simply was shocked, he wrote - "There were rooms of lost luggage that did not have any doors, luggage thrown and left sitting by the walls and people every where waiting for their own luggage by the carousels. The lost and found was in the same giant room where travelers on flights where picking up their luggage. Basically if anyone wanted to take an extra suitcase or two it could have been done in a heartbeat with no questions asked. I walked around to each pile and room with suitcases. I saw damaged suitcases, where the entire contents of a people's bags were lying on the ground, empty suitcases piled up at the corners.. Actually, when I was in one room there was a man loading all the empty suitcases on a cart, most likely destined for the garbage. I was so angry to see this sort of chaos and lack of security and professionalism.” That such an attitude exists with the airlines and airport.

Incidentally, another Canadian service – postal - serves about 4 billion (!) only marketing letters annually [3], and manages to work so coordinated so it is a common practice to send documents, passports or credit cards by the regular mail! Any mechanical engineer understands that from a technical point of view there are almost no differences between routing regular mails and baggage. Further more, the number of baggage passing through all airports all together most likely far less the number of letters and parcels processed by Canadian Post at the equal amount of time. So what is wrong? Airline companies say it is a result of a human factor, experienced travelers also advise to reduce it to a minimum. Here are some tips:

1) During the check-in, when the ticket agent prints out your luggage tag with the destination airport, ask to see it and check it personally. It is reported that many times the information was wrong. Ask to reprint and ensure again that the tag has a correct destination abbreviation. (It's also a good idea to familiarize yourself with what is written on your ticket.) This is the very first step when your luggage might travel somewhere else.
2) Fill out and hang tags with your contact information such as the phone number and the delivery address.
3) The address tag might be easily torn off during (un)loading and transportation, be sure to put a sheet of paper inside the baggage with the clear direction where to deliver the baggage during your trip and after the return.
4) Do not put any valuables in baggage, it is better to take them in hand luggage. In general, say goodbye to your luggage, as if you see them for the last time, and pray to see them again few hours later.
5) Since bags' models do not show up a huge variety of forms and colors, perhaps some distinctive mark(s) such as colorful logo of your favorite hockey team may also be helpful to describe your lost baggage to the operator or even to pick up your luggage on the carousel.

All above were for tourists. What mechanical engineers can do for us? Let's look at the problem from a technical standpoint. As a first task, we should eliminate the very reason of the luggage lost. Second, it is a good idea to let luggage to tell us where it is right now. Is it possible to combine these two tasks in one system? Well, I think in age of Mars missions, genetically modified products and nanotechnology, even a student can solve this problem.

So, what needed is a gadget that can transmit some data like ID and hopefully something else to another gadget, it is also necessary that these two devices would be able to communicate at some distance. It is quite obvious the paper tag with human readable airport code or even scannable barcode do not address to two requirements above. What immediately comes to mind is Radio-Frequency IDentification (RFID) technology. Technically this is a small chip with antenna, which might have its own source of power or be without it, and when a request from an external source triggers it, the chip wirelessly sends some data outside. Usage of RFID tags is diverse, for example [4]:
* Animal tracking rice-sized tags, inserted beneath the skin
* Screw-shaped tags to identify trees or wooden items
* Credit-card shaped for use in access applications
* The anti-theft hard plastic tags attached to merchandise in stores
* Heavy-duty 120 by 100 by 50 millimeter rectangular transponders used to track shipping containers, or heavy machinery, trucks, and railroad cars

There are different types of RFID chips and it is possible to find the most relevant one, for example, the active RFID tag has it’s own power source, increased communication range (up to 500 m) and memory enough for most applications. Sounds familiar and yes, it leads to a typical Supply Chain Management (SCM) system.

Now imagine how such system could work. The passenger, preferably during the purchase of the ticket, when it is possible to check and double-check everything with no rush, receives RFID tag with all information about the flight (both ways, including connections) and some personal information that the passenger is willing to reveal about the future accommodations, addresses and phone numbers. This tag will be placed inside the luggage and therefore may not be easily lost. The luggage tracking system in the airport is requesting this information, making a log in the database and routing the luggage to a necessary flight. If suddenly the luggage from another flight will appear during the loading the system alarms immediately and allows to avoid the problem. Airport service, even if something wrong (the notorious human factor) based on the information on the tag always will be able to send the luggage to the correct destination. At the any stage during the flight, the passenger will be able to track the luggage – has it arrived at a connection airport? Was it loaded to this flight or sent by another? and so on.

How the system can help if the baggage got lost somewhere? For example, the passenger has made several connections and did not receive the luggage at the destination airport in time, he will go to the lost baggage desk, present tickets and so on. The operator will enter the baggage number and send a request to all airports which passenger has flown through. Antennas in the baggage warehouse at each airport will send a request, one of these antennas will receive a response, and in a few seconds the passenger will know where exactly his baggage is. If for some reason there is no answer, the operator will send a request to all possible airports thus the luggage still will be found. The system also stores data about the lost baggage in the database, and airport service can easily find the baggage and deliver it.

If this technology is so cool and convenient, why it has not been yet introduced, though as it shown above it's already used in a range of similar applications? Maybe one of the answers is because in the real world, contrary to academic one where everything correct is quite different. In the real world, there is always someone who wants to harm a system in some way, run a virus, for example [5]. And there are always some companies hungry to snatch a large sum creating incompatible, proprietary technologies with the only mission "double profit in a next FY".

As a consequence of that, the useful technology, which exists for more than 50 years, still is not ready for a widespread usage: a single standard has not yet specified, the security is not properly designed. Passengers, some of which are probably employees of those companies, every day lose their baggage and no services at the airport can help find it. How long this could continue? Why those monsters such as ICAO and SITA could not clean it up? May be there are using the motto – Where could you escape from our submarine?

1) For the ethical reason the link is not given until the author of the original post will ask me for. – [Shamil]
2) For the ethical reason the link is not given until the author of the original post will ask me for. – [Shamil]
3) http://www.accenture.com/NR/rdonlyres/FAC0CC59-5413-4A87-A3BD-09ADF77AA4E4/0/pushingtheenvelope.pdf
4) http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Technology-Article.asp?ArtNum=4
5) http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20060315-6386.html
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