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"Logan to test 'indoor radar' system for tracking luggage"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Have you seen this bag?
Logan Airport to test 'indoor radar' as a replacement for its often
inefficient luggage tracking based on bar codes
By Peter J. Howe
The Boston (MA) Globe

Lost luggage is more than just a source of frustration for airline
passengers. It represents an estimated $2.5 billion annual problem for
airlines that have to reunite bags with owners.

In spring, Logan International Airport officials will attack the problem
with cutting-edge technology. Logan plans to test a system whose inventor
describes it as "indoor radar" -- bag tags embedded with unique patterns of
metallic fibers that can be "read" by electronic readers as they whiz by on
conveyor belts at up to 25 miles per hour.

The test will be limited, involving only luggage handled by Lufthansa, the
German airline, which runs a daily flight from Boston to Frankfurt and
accounts for just 1.4 percent of Logan's passengers.

For now, the system will supplement, not replace, existing luggage-routing
systems, which use the same fundamental bar-code scanning technology as do
supermarket checkout aisles.

But depending on how well it works, Logan just might prove to be the
birthplace of the next big idea for keeping bags moving -- accurately --
through airports and onto planes.

"It's pretty exciting stuff," said Dennis Treece , director of security for
the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan. "Everybody's been
looking at how to do a better job with baggage, and there's a potentially
huge savings, if it does work."

SITA, a global software and technology company that has installed
bag-handling systems at scores of airports, estimates airlines spend $25 to
$150 to reconnect lost bags with owners, counting everything from airport
bag agents' hourly wages to charges for delivering a lost bag to a hotel.

With 30 million bags misrouted worldwide annually, 200,000 of which are lost
forever, SITA pegs the total cost at $2.5 billion.

Today, it's not uncommon for a piece of luggage to travel a mile or more
along conveyor belts behind airline check-in counters, with detours through
locked-down Transportation Security Administration inspection rooms where
bags are scanned for explosives, weaponry, and other contraband.

The standard technology for automating bags' ride through the airport relies
on bar codes printed on the sticky white labels that gate agents or skycaps
loop around baggage handles.

When the time comes for a bag to be shunted off the main conveyor belt onto
the belt for a specific airline or a specific flight, automated systems
using bar-code scanners attempt to read the code, correlate it to the
airline and flight number, then trip a "pusher," a panel that pops out of
the conveyor belt wall like a hockey player delivering a hip check, to shunt
a bag down the right chute.

But 5 to 20 percent of the time bar codes go unread because they're wedged
under a suitcase or smudged or the optical scanner has been compromised by
dust or grime. That means the bag rides to the end of the belt and has to be
carried by a human to the right airline baggage train. US airlines carry
roughly 50 million passengers a month, and depending on the ratio of
day-tripping road warriors and vacationers, roughly that many bags, as well.

Many airport "baggage tunnels" are virtually wallpapered with missing bag
stickers that fell or got yanked off bags. De-stickered baggage goes to the
airport version of the dead-letter office, where airline agents hope there's
a luggage tag with the owner's name -- or some identifying information
inside -- to help them determine where the bag needs to go.

In recent years, many airline and airport officials have looked to "radio
frequency identification" tags, called RFID, as a better alternative. These
are labels that have the equivalent of a Massachusetts Turnpike FastLane
transponder inside, emitting a unique numerical identifier for the bag and
its assigned flight.

Hong Kong is the first airport to go all-RFID.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is sorting about 77 percent of
bags using a Symbol Technologies Inc. system. It expects to be at 100
percent by later this winter, airport spokesman Chris Jones said.

In Las Vegas, at about 21 cents each, the RFID tags cost much more than
standard printed tags. But by improving the accuracy of baggage sorting from
around 90 percent to over 99 percent, the system has cut the number of bags
airline workers are manually carrying to about 700 a day from 7,000. Jones
said even with the $25 million cost of Symbol's five-year contract, airport
officials think the system more than pays for itself in overall improvements
in efficiency, including airlines' savings.

The big holdups for wider RFID use, though, are the up-front cost and the
same kind of years-long wrangling -- seen earlier in everything from
videotapes to cellphone networks -- over what should be the worldwide
technology standard.

The system Logan will test, developed by Northern Virginia inventor Mort
Greene of Inkode Inc. , resembles RFID, but with simpler tags that don't
require batteries. "Chipless RFID," as Greene calls it, could thus be far
cheaper. It uses bag tags with unique patterns of metal fibers woven in
them, which are "read" by machines that emit radio waves and measure how
they bounce back from the tag.

Unlike RFID, Greene said, the system doesn't get snarled by static
electricity, which is abundant in a bag-belt environment with rubber rubbing
rubber and plastic all day long. The Logan test will use "indoor radar" tags
similar to today's bar-code tags that would still be vulnerable to coming
off bags.

But if the tags became an industry standard, because the radio waves that
read them can pass through suitcases, they could go inside most kinds of
non-metallic luggage, eliminating the tear-off risk entirely.

Terminal E, where the test will happen, is the only baggage operation
Massport runs. Logan's other baggage systems are strictly
airline-controlled. Behind Terminal E's two broad airline check-in counters
are over 14,000 feet, or 2 1/2 miles, of baggage belts leading through TSA
inspection facilities to six different final sorting destinations for the
various airlines.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when two jetliners that took
off from Logan were used to lay waste to New York's World Trade Center,
Massport has turned Logan into a hotbed for testing high-tech security gear,
including everything from instant anthrax bomb detection kits to advanced
eye scanners that would confirm the identities of frequent travelers the
government confirms aren't terrorists or criminals.

In this instance, Treece said, the new luggage tracking technology does have
the appeal of being cutting-edge -- but frugal, too.

"Inexpensive plus reliable," Treece said, "equals a good thing to have, in
my book."

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