Baggage Claim Gains Visibility with RFID

By Claire Swedberg

Travelers arriving at Brussels Airport can view the location of their RFID-tagged luggage as it is routed onto baggage carrousels for pickup.

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Brussels Airport has deployed a solution leveraging radio frequency identification technology to provide passengers with visibility into their baggage location when they land. The automated solution consists of an RFID system deployed by Aucxis, which uses Impinj RFID readers and tags.

In 2019, 26.4 million passengers passed through Brussels Airport while traveling with 64 airlines to and from 207 other airports. The volume of baggage that travelled with them amounted to 42,000 pieces of luggage daily. In order to improve the airport experience for its passengers arriving from other locations, Brussels Airport sought a service that could automatically inform travelers about the status of their luggage.

Brussels Airport

Last year, the airport began working with several technology companies. It has since deployed what it calls the bTag Experience, consisting of passive UHF RFID-enabled tags attached to baggage, as well as RFID readers deployed in areas where inbound luggage is received and routed to carousels, in order to identify where and when each bag is received and is then made available for passengers to pick up. The airport’s own software manages the data and forwards it to participating passengers. Aucxis installed the technology, piloted the system and consulted on the installation, while the airport developed its own software and app for use by passengers.

The goal is to provide visibility for passengers who want assurance regarding where and when their bags will be made available, says Glenn Schnieders, the Internet of Things (IoT) product manager at Brussels Airport Co., which operates the airport. “As you may know,” he says, “[the experience for] a traveler waiting at the baggage belt can be sometimes stressful.” Luggage might not yet have arrived, or it may be at another belt or already have been removed.

Glenn Schnieders

The bTag system, Schnieders explains, is intended to eliminate this uncertainty. “We try to overcome this feeling by giving the passengers the possibility to relax before really entering the baggage hall,” he states. Those who can view their baggage status can arrange their journey through the airport accordingly, he says, adding, “No need to wait at the belt—instead, you can enjoy a coffee or go shopping.”

To participate in the system, a passenger must first acquire the bTag, which can be attached to a piece of luggage and then be reused as many times as he or she desires. The bTag is about the size of a credit card and is available for sale at the airport’s website for €8 ($9.40) for a two-pack. Passengers typically receive the bTag a few days after ordering it, and it comes with a built-in UHF RFID tag. Once the bTag arrives, a passenger must activate it by scanning the QR code printed on its face and inputting his or her ID information, including a phone number where notifications can be sent.

A custom-built Web app is dedicated for the bTag use case, Schnieders says, so “there is no need to install an app on a user’s phone.” The software links the unique ID number encoded on the RFID tag with that passenger’s identity. He or she can attach a bTag to each bag that will be passing through the airport, then check the luggage at the airline counter per usual, whether at the Brussels Airport or any other airport. The tag ID will not be read until it arrives at Brussels Airport from an inbound flight.

When the passenger’s flight arrives at Brussels Airport, an Impinj xSpan RFID reader installed at the receiving point captures the tag ID and forwards that data to the software, which links the information to that specific passenger and his or her phone number, automatically sending an SMS text message that his or her luggage has arrived and has been offloaded from the plane. The traveler can then continue through the airport toward the baggage carousels, or take time browsing stores or having a snack.

As the bags pass down the conveyor and head for a specific carousel, another RFID reader captures their tag IDs and prompts another message to the passenger indicating which carousel to proceed to. If the individual prefers, the data can be made visible in the app without a text message being sent. The airport designed the software to reside both on its own local infrastructure and in the cloud, which allows it access to the arrival times and locations of all baggage for analytical purposes.

Rik Heirman

The system was tested in a proof-of-concept (PoC) to identify tag types and the best detection points, according to Rik Heirman, Aucxis’s account manager and business consultant. Readers were installed at each luggage carousel, and the system was then deployed throughout the airport, with the readers capturing tag data and forwarding it to the software platform. This POC took place in a controlled environment, Heirman says, in which the practical solution was simulated on a small scale. “After selecting the right tag type,” he explains, “we provided the required detection points at each luggage carousel.”

Full installation was completed in the summer of 2019, Heirman reports. “Thanks to the preparatory work,” he says, “the final installation and fine-tuning of the hardware and middleware at Brussels Airport went quite straightforward.” Friends and family members of airport employees were the first to use the system at the end of last year.

The airport chose to work with passive UHF RFID tags that could be attached to each bag for a single trip, and then be reused by frequent-flying passengers. “As we are working with baggage, our options were limited,” Schnieders states. “You can’t put a tracker with an active battery on baggage. Therefore, we rapidly chose [passive] RFID as our main technology solution.”

The system enables the airport to boost its own baggage-handling accuracy as recommended in International Air Transport Association (IATA) Resolution 753 for uniquely and automatically identifying luggage when custody changes. “As an airport,” Schnieders says, “we are constantly in contact with IATA on making aviation more safer and innovating. Our and IATA’s number-one goal is still the safety of our passengers.”