Reusable Electronic Baggage Tag Powered by RFID

By Claire Swedberg

Vanguard ID Systems' View Tag contains two passive RFID chips and an electronic paper display to help airlines and airports track the location of luggage, and send updates to passengers' cell phones when bags are loaded on planes.


After several years of meeting with airlines, airports and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Vanguard ID Systems, a manufacturer of custom-printed bar-coded, magnetic-stripe and RFID cards and key tags, labels and bands, has developed a reusable RFID-enabled luggage tag that includes a battery-free, changeable electronic paper (e-paper) display that shows flight data.

The reusable tag, known as a View Tag, employs radio frequency identification to transmit an ID number that could be linked to a bag’s flight information, as well as display passenger and flight data on the tag itself, using only the energizing power of an RFID reader. Like ink on paper, e-paper depends on exterior light to illuminate its text, and can display that text indefinitely, without drawing electricity. Using electronic-ink technology from E Ink (the same technology used in‘s Kindle and a number of similar devices), the View Tag’s display consists of millions of tiny black and white microcapsules. Depending on each microcapsule’s positive or negative charge, the screen displays either white or black particles that would spell the destination airport code, and could display other flight data as well.

The View Tag contains a passive RFID-powered electronic paper display.

Vanguard ID Systems is marketing the View Tag as a transitional baggage-tracking solution until more airlines and airports are equipped with RFID readers, so that the View Tag could provide visible data to those without readers, as well as be read by handheld or desktop interrogators at airline terminals, or eventually by reader portals at airports. The View Tag has piqued the interest of airlines and airline associations, says Alan Neves, Vanguard ID Systems’ global RFID account manager. Once the View Tag has been re-engineered to have a lower cost than the current prototype model, he hopes to see it in use at airports in as little as a few months from now.

Vanguard ID Systems identified baggage-tracking problems faced by airlines several years ago, and has since been in multiple discussions with major airlines regarding how those issues could be resolved. Currently, nearly all airports and airlines utilize tags as long as 21 inches, made of adhesive-backed paper and printed with the name and three-letter International Air Transport Association (IATA) code for the destination airport, airline name, flight number and passenger name, as well as a bar-coded 10-digit “license plate” number linked to that same flight information. Those tags help airlines and airport employees ensure that the luggage ends up on the right plane. The paper tags’ bar codes are actually read only about 60 to 90 percent of the time, Neves says, because the tags can often get tangled up under a bag and be difficult to read, either visually or with a bar-code scanner. In 2009, however, ODIN carried out tests of ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID baggage tags in an airport setting with the baggage conveyor turned up to full speed, and found that six of the tested tag models demonstrated an RFID read rate of 100 percent (see ODIN Forecasts Fast ROI for RFID-based Baggage Handling).

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, passengers on domestic U.S. flights in 2009 filed 2.19 million reports of luggage lost, damaged, delayed or pilfered during the baggage-handling process, though the causes were not always bar-coded-related. Only 0.005 percent of all checked baggage is permanently lost, according to Vanguard ID Systems, and most bags catch up with passengers within hours. While the airline delivers any lost luggage to its owner by courier once it is found, it is still highly inconvenient for that customer—and expensive for the U.S. airlines, at an estimated annual cost of $750 million.

This paper system also has a significant environmental impact, Vanguard ID Systems reports, since the approximately 2 billion tags used each year are torn off and discarded after every flight. At airports in Las Vegas and Hong Kong, RFID-enabled tags are being placed directly onto luggage, but they, too, are discarded after each flight.

The View Tag aims to reduce wastage, as well as the rate of lost baggage, by employing e-paper and radio frequency identification. The View Tag comes with two RFID chips: one a high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz chip complying with the ISO 14443-a standard, the other a UHF Gen 2 RFID IC to be read from longer ranges using a fixed reader portal. According to Vanguard ID Systems, its baggage tag is flexible, static-resistant, waterproof and durable enough to sustain hard blows.

If an airline were utilizing the View Tag, a passenger arriving at a terminal could be presented with the tag to attach to the handle of his or her luggage. The tag could then remain there indefinitely, for use on subsequent flights. On one side of the tag, the airline could permanently print the passenger’s name and address, while one or more E Ink displays appear on the other side. The airline’s staff could use a handheld or desktop HF reader at close range (a few centimeters) to change the text that appears on the e-paper display, and to read the unique ID number of the View Tag’s 13.56 MHz chip, as well as encode it with the destination airport’s three-letter code. Other data, including a 10-digit license plate number, could be encoded on the tag as well. The tag’s E Ink screen then displays that three-letter code until the View Tag’s HF chip is re-encoded. The HF RFID inlay supports encryption so that only someone (such as an airline employee) with a reader using the appropriate security key can access and encode the tag.

If the baggage-handling system at the airport or airline has fixed UHF RFID readers in place, those can then be used to capture the ID number of the View Tag’s EPC Gen 2 chip as each piece of luggage travels by conveyor belt to the appropriate loading area for each plane. In that way, the airline could read the ID number encoded to the View Tag’s UHF EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay. The UHF inlay’s ID number would be linked to information regarding the passenger in the airline’s software system, along with the tag’s location, based on the reader’s ID.

If the necessary software system (provided by Vanguard ID Systems) were in place for an airline, Neves says, it would then be possible to send a text message to the passenger—if an airline or airport requested that feature—to alert that individual that the baggage is being loaded onto the correct flight. That text message, however, would not be sent to the passenger until the flight was in the air and that person’s phone was turned off, thereby avoiding the potential for flight disruption if a passenger were to discover (via text message) that his or her bag was not being loaded onto the proper airplane before takeoff. When the plane lands, the traveler will then see the text message indicating the bag was aboard, as well as at which luggage carrousel it can be retrieved.

Presently, only a few airports have the infrastructure necessary to read RFID tags, including Las Vegas and Hong Kong. Neves, however, says he expects the View Tag to be used transitionally at first, with additional features (such as the text-message alert) being added as airports or airlines are able to do so. Those airports with RFID infrastructure already in place are using RFID-enabled baggage tags with printed text and bar codes, though they are all disposable.

Although Vanguard ID Systems has not yet signed contracts with any airlines, Neves says, many major carriers have shown an interest in the technology. Who would pay for the View Tags themselves has yet to be determined, he notes. Passengers could purchase them outright, or pay an annual fee, or an airline could provide them at its own expense. Vanguard ID Systems’ engineers are currently reworking the View Tag to bring its cost down. Neves envisions that initially, airlines would issue View Tags to frequent-flying passengers, who could use them for all of their flights, potentially reducing the need for paper tags—assuming that the airport has installed a UHF RFID baggage-handling system.