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German Boaters Try RFID to Deter Theft

More than 1,000 vessels are reportedly protected by a five-year-old system that uses passive 13.45 MHZ tags to verify a watercraft's identify.
By Rhea Wessel
Aug 24, 2005A German RFID system has been scaring off boat thieves for the past five years, according to the system's developer, security-technology company C4 Marketing Service GmbH. Located in Dietzenbach, near Frankfurt, C4 spent several hundred thousand euros to develop a system based on the 13.56 MHz frequency. It is being used on more than 1,000 vessels docked around the country, on lakes and along the coast.

Juergen Tracht, head of the Bundesverband Wassersportwirtschaft e.V. (BWVS), which represents commercial boating interests, says boat theft in Germany has become a growing problem since the European Union has expanded its borders and the union's internal border controls are loosening. Germany is home to some 300,000 recreational boats, according to the BWVS, but no national statistics are available about thefts since such information is kept at local offices. However, Germany's largest boat insurer, Pantaenius, says about 500 to 600 boats are stolen each year.

Dr. Klaus Kraemer, Univ. of Applied Sciences
With the C4 system, boat owners and manufacturers can place some seven to 10 tags at different positions on a craft—behind the dash, on the motor or at water level. A decal is then affixed to the boat, warning potential intruders that the craft is outfitted with the System Transponder Pass security system. A thief cannot know how many transponders are on a vessel or where they are located. If the boat is stolen and ever recovered, a C4 representative can verify the vessel's identify by scanning the hidden tags with a reader specially designed and built by the company.

Made with passive RFID chips from Philips, the tags can be applied to fiberglass and wooden boats. They can even be placed underneath the fiberglass sheets that are layered to form boat hulls and still be read.

"The beauty of System Transponder Pass is that it can be easily adapted to other valuable objects, such as motorcycles, bicycles or even saddles," says Dr. Klaus Kraemer, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin and a consultant to C4. Kraemer helped design System Transponder Pass. C4 is already working with a riding gear retailer, Iberosattel, to sell a security system for horse saddles.

In about five years of operation, with more than 1,000 boats tagged, only two thefts have been reported. In one case, a large outboard motor was carried away by thieves who were presumably professional and had the equipment needed to lift such a motor. In another case, a motorboat turned up missing and was never found.

System Transponder Pass, which retails for 80 euros, includes an entry in C4's security system database. Each of the seven to 10 tags assigned to a craft holds the same ID number, but no personal information. After C4 scans the tags, the firm matches the ID number with the boat-specific data on C4's secure database. Data stored on that database includes the owner's name and phone number, as well as details about the boat.

So far, the system is only available in Germany, but C4 has been in discussions with individuals in Greece and Austria who were interested in franchises.

The readers for the system were developed by MOBA, a Dresden-based specialist in contactless ID systems. These waterproof handheld devices are about the size of a large tennis racket and can ID a boat 70 centimeters (27 inches) away.

Besides theft deterrence, Kraemer sees other applications for the system. He can imagine it being used to automate toll collection along canals with locks, for boater loyalty programs, to better manage boat slip rentals and fee collection at marinas, and to provide better security services at marinas. Attendants along canals could scan passing boats, and marina personnel could stroll along docks collecting data on which boats are in port, and in which slips.

Tracht believes tagging boats surely deters some thieves, but the bigger problem is finding stolen boats. Holger Flindt, head of the claims department at Pantaenius, agrees with Tracht that the tags may be useful in deterring theft but are of little use in finding stolen boats.

"For a tagging system to be effective, it needs to be implemented on a national or global scale, or governments must make the tags a requirement," says Flindt. If all boats were tagged and missing boats were noted on a database, random scans could match IDs and police could be alerted if a suspect craft were identified.
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