RFID, UVC Bring Safety to Air-Flight Baggage

By Claire Swedberg

With a sterilization system deployed at Chubu Airport, and with RFID readers to capture the tag IDs of baggage and carts, Japanese research group ARTA intends to offer safety and notifications to incoming passengers, reducing the risk of disease transmission.

Technology companies, under the leadership of Japan's  NPO Airport RFID Technology Alliance (ARTA), have developed an Ultraviolet-C (UVC) light-sterilization system, along with a baggage- arrival notification system for passengers, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. The solution's purpose is twofold: to sterilize bags and the carts that transport those bags, and to track data regarding where the bags are located as they move through the process. This enables airports to better ensure social distancing at carousels, the company reports.

RFID also creates an automatic record of when baggage carts are sterilized, in order to provide information to passengers using the carts, and to airport management. The system is being demonstrated at  Chubu Airport, leveraging  SICK software, as well as UHF RFID tags provided by  Toppan Forms, Sankei, Naxis and  Avery Dennison. Denso Wave provided the readers. An app used by passengers on their mobile phones to receive baggage-arrival information was developed by  Saitama University, while  Iwasaki Electric provided the UVC technology.

Japan's Chubu Airport

The demonstration began on Oct. 14 and is expected to continue until Nov. 6. The results will be reviewed by participants until the end of the month, after which ARTA hopes to see a commercialized model deployed at major Japanese airports. ARTA, a nonprofit association, was launched in 2008 and is dedicated to providing and promoting RFID technology for airport operators and users. The goal was to bring RFID data to baggage-sterilization process so that passengers and airports have a better understanding of the location and status of luggage and of baggage carts.

With the solution, says Keisuke Hatano, ARTA's executive director, COVID-10 infections can be prevented from entering an airport if proper screening is employed. "We have seen arriving passengers showing COVID-19-positive upon arrival testing," he says, so the risk to public health is not only from an individual who has tested positive, but also from his or her luggage. While there are no known cases of COVID-19 being spread on contaminated bags, Hatano says, the system offers a safeguard to prevent such an incident from occurring. "We should deal with all possibilities to make passengers, airport staff and local residents feel safe."

Some airports apply disinfectants to arriving baggage, though there is rarely any way for airports or airlines to prove bags were disinfected. When a flight arrives at the airport, baggage is offloaded. For the demonstration, a UHF RFID tag is applied to every bag that does not already have an RFID tag built into its routing label. Delta and Hong Kong airports each universally use RFID tags, while other airlines and airports often rely on barcodes.

Every bag is moved through a sterilization system, during which the luggage is placed on a conveyor that transports the bags through a 2.5-meter (0.003-foot) tunnel. Before it enters that tunnel, an RFID reader and an optical scanner capture data from each baggage tag by reading its unique ID number and scanning the barcode on the front of the label. If the system is deployed at other airports, the inclusion of barcode technology can ensure that a tag will be automatically identified whether or not it has an RFID tag.

The SICK software captures data from the tag reader and the barcode scanner, then links the ID to details regarding the bag and the passenger associated with its tag. Ultraviolet rays beamed onto the baggage irradiate bacteria and viruses, and a time stamp is updated to indicate the bag has undergone disinfection. At the same time, a message can be sent to the passenger's phone indicating the bag has been offloaded and is being disinfected, while also providing an estimated time of arrival at a specific carousel.

The app, developed by Saitama University, uses the college's server to deliver the data collected by the SICK software. Passengers wishing to use the app are invited to scan a QR code on a screen in the arrival section, and to add their baggage tag ID. Passengers viewing that information can plan to visit a specific carousel, based on the luggage's ETA. The same data is also displayed on a screen in the passenger baggage carousel area, for use by travelers not utilizing their smartphone to access the data.

Next, the tag passes a second reader—a SICK RFU630 reader with three antennas, installed at the point at which the bags enter the carousel area. Again, a time stamp is linked to the ID number transmitted by each bag's RFID tag. The software forwards the collected data to the passenger's mobile phone, thereby notifying him or her that the luggage is ready for retrieval. Because passengers know approximately when to report to a particular carousel, there is expected to be less need for people to wait among crowds in the baggage-receiving area.

ARTA's Keisuke Hatano

A third RFID reader and antenna are dedicated to baggage carts, which are sterilized as part of the demonstration and provide sanitation after each passenger use. RFID tags are applied to the carts, with a QR code printed on them. Carts used by a passenger are then returned to a specified corridor, where they are moved through another UVC chamber. As each cart undergoes sterilization, an RFID reader automatically captures its tag ID, and the software updates the cart's status as sterilized. The cart is then returned to the arrival passenger pickup area for those who need it to move their baggage.

Before taking a cart, a passenger can use his or her smartphone to scan the QR code and view data about that cart's most recent sterilization. Security check trays will be periodically put through the UVC sterilization process as well, at regular intervals. Once this is completed, Hatano says, ARTA's members, academic researchers and technology providers will evaluate the demonstration's results, which will be shared with airports, airlines and other companies willing to adopt the system.

Although the solution is currently being designed to both read RFID tags and scan barcodes, Hatano says, the long-term expectation is for RFID tags to be ubiquitous on airline baggage. "We are looking to the future," he states, "when all baggage will have an RFID inlay, following the resolution at IATA AGM75." In the meantime, he says, baggage tags without RFID will be read by the barcode optical-reading camera.

Since flights have been less frequent during the pandemic, Hatano reports, the volume of baggage arriving at airports is expected to increase in the future as normal travel resumes. The solution, he says, is the first of its kind to combine UVC sterilization and RFID to help passengers maintain proper social distancing. The goal, Hatano adds, is to more quickly restore normal international travel during the pandemic.