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Australia Security Transportation IT

Finding Fault With Qantas' RFID Baggage Tracking System 106

lukehopewell1 writes "Australian airline giant Qantas has implemented new baggage tags powered by RFID technology. The RFID tag is encoded with the information on a passenger's boarding pass when placed in a bag drop area, and is summarily sent to its destination. But is it any good? ZDNet Australia tested the new systems and found that the system sadly had no intention of sending our cargo."
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Finding Fault With Qantas' RFID Baggage Tracking System

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  • The bloke at the airport couldn't get the RFID tag to work after three goes.

    (Translation: The guy at the airport couldn't get the RFID tag to work after three tries.)

    • Yes a bit of a non-story......
      • by thej1nx ( 763573 )

        Especially since not many of us generally check in glasses of jars.

        Perhaps they should have tried an actual normal bag? Not much of a test if you don't use real world example usage. Makes it easier to understand and trust the results. The only thing this tells me is that the Qantas system is not very effective when sending unpacked glass jars.

        • by Askmum ( 1038780 )
          I'm even surprised that they would accept glass jars or containers as luggage. Seeing the way luggage is handles this breaks within 2 seconds. How is a jar a bag anyway? And maybe some pictures of your failed attempt?

          And reading the announcement on the check-in method, I'm amazed that this gets approved by any regulatory body. Is a checkin without human interaction something that is in use generally? As I see it you can just chuck any old fart in that check-in system and be done with it. Up to and includ
          • by surgen ( 1145449 )

            Is a checkin without human interaction something that is in use generally?

            I have not encountered it, but it isn't really any less safe, all the person at the counter does is slap a sticker on it and put the bag on a conveyer belt. Any inspection they do of the bag is only caused by the fact they have to look at the bag to move it, the same thing chukers in the back will be doing anyway. Only a random selection of bags are searched between the counter and the plane, and you find a lovenote from the inspectors in your bag when you claim it.

          • Is a checkin without human interaction something that is in use generally?

            All the time. I never see a real person if I can avoid it. The way it works here is you walk up to a scanner, put in some ID (drivers license, passport, credit card or frequent flyer card), choose your seat if you need to, print your baggage tags if you are checking anything in, then put the tags on your luggage and walk through to security. No people, quick and easy.

        • Re:TL;DL (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Idarubicin ( 579475 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @09:14AM (#36261862) Journal

          Perhaps they should have tried an actual normal bag?

          They did. The jar was wrapped in bubble wrap, which was then zipped inside a small backpack/tote bag. While I'm sure that the producers were hoping for a bag of broken jar and loose M&Ms about which they could snark at the end of the segment, there wasn't anything freakishly bizarre about the bag that they tried to check.

          The one thing that was a bit unusual was the size of the bag--it was quite a bit smaller than most checked bags or backpacks would be; certainly much smaller than the carry-on limits for any airline. I can see a parcel that size being checked only if the passenger had multiple carry-on-sized items and the airline was being particularly sticky about their carry-on bag count. Since the automated checking system incorporates sensors for bag weight and laser scanners to detect bag size, it may be that this particular item fell below the check-in system's minimum size thresholds. It couldn't tell the difference between this small bag and an empty bin, so sent the passenger to the regular, manual check-in rather than risking checking in an RFID tag without its attached luggage.

        • It's an RFID tag, the size of the thing it is attached to should make no difference.

          A tag in the bin should have made it to being lost by the handlers just like any real luggage.

    • by mjwx ( 966435 )

      The bloke at the airport couldn't get the RFID tag to work after three goes.

      (Translation: The guy at the airport couldn't get the RFID tag to work after three tries.)

      In other words, it's QANTAS. Things like this are the reason I'd rather fly anyone else.

      • I am in Melbourne and my wife refuses to fly Qantas. Last time going to Malaysia she flew Emirates. I really should point her to this page about this incident []. The north south runway at Tullamarine is slightly higher than the terrain past both ends of the runway and I heard from a traffic controller that the tower controllers almost lost sight of the aircraft as it traded altitude for speed immediately after takeoff. They hit the crash button and expected to see a fireball.

        • by mjwx ( 966435 )

          I am in Melbourne and my wife refuses to fly Qantas. Last time going to Malaysia she flew Emirates. I really should point her to this page about this incident []. The north south runway at Tullamarine is slightly higher than the terrain past both ends of the runway and I heard from a traffic controller that the tower controllers almost lost sight of the aircraft as it traded altitude for speed immediately after takeoff. They hit the crash button and expected to see a fireball.

          They used the wrong weight of the aircraft, bad form by the pilots.

          I must admit to being a bit of a plane spotter, I've found VASO (Russian airline) like to use the entire runway when flying out of HKT (3000 M) when flying the IL86's out. Fortunately the western end of the runway goes over the ocean.

          • There was a video floating around at work which was taken by a tower controller in Canberra. The russian aircraft in question used all the runway and a bit more. I can't recall the type unfortunately. One russian co-worker told me about particular aircraft type which takes off "due to the curvature of the earth". Following the Emirates event I have stopped hanging around the ends of runway 34 at Tullamarine. It is more dangerous than I expected.

        • I flew Qantas to and from Alice Springs. While I never had any issues and the service was excellent during the transpacific flight, I have witnessed some major screw up on other flights. My colleague left Alice a day earlier then I and when he arrived at the airport there were a huge number of people standing around in the airport lobby. He thought there was going to be a full flight to Sydney. Instead it turned out that the plane had left Sydney without any luggage. Nobody had luggage, and the next plane f

        • I wonder how hard it would be to have some kind of sensor in the landing gear that would give a sanity check on the numbers being fed into the computer. I could see this happening very easily frankly. Typos happen, and having a computer trust a number punched in when it is controlling the plane is rather odd.

          • Yeah I had the same thought. The aircraft knows its position from GPS, so it knows its acceleration as soon as it starts to move. It knows the length of the runway so it should be able to warn the crew of the problem within the first few hundred metres of the takeoff run.

      • Did you RTFA? Of course not. Dude tries to check in a fucking jar of lollies and was surprised when it didn't work.

        I fly QANTAS always (company deal). Their checking procedures are the most streamlined and refined of any airline there is. My last trip last week I didn't need to talk to anyone. Go to the computer type in my 6digit booking code, hit next 3 times and I got a bag tag and a boarding pass. Put bag tag on bag (didn't have a Q tag), put bag on machine, it acknowledge it and weighed it, I went to th

        • It took me longer to pass security then it did to check in. All airlines should be like this.

          That's fast considering that airport security in Australia is faster than the US. They still do all the checks (I've been swabbed for chemicals twice), but they don't slow down the line by requiring people to take of their shoes.

    • Re:TL;DL (Score:4, Informative)

      by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @01:32AM (#36259832)
      The airline employee couldn't get the airline system to accept the airline tag. Not just "three goes" but "every time tried" and just gave up. It's not like it worked the third time, but the airline employee admitted failure of the tagging system when it wouldn't work. It's not like it was done by a regular person who didn't get it to work. The people trained and paid to make the system work were unable to do so.

      I wonder if it may have been because it was such a small bag and the bag didn't raise the tag high enough to be accurately read in the initial scan. Unfortunately, since they have the "automated" system run by airline employees, the guys trying couldn't get a chance to play with it at all to test anything like that themselves.
      • Re:TL;DL (Score:4, Interesting)

        by ozmanjusri ( 601766 ) <> on Friday May 27, 2011 @02:13AM (#36259968) Journal
        The automated checkin system has been in place in Perth for a while and works smoothly enough for experienced travelers. The baggage scanner/conveyor kiosks do seem a bit temperamental, but if one doesn't work, I just move to the next.

        Normally, if the RFID part fails, the barcode scanner in the top can pick up the code on the back of the tag, so I'd say the guys in the video might have had a better experience if they'd just put an "Out of Service" tag on the broken kiosk and moved to the next one.

        The biggest problem I've seen is that there's not enough information telling people new to the system what to do. Qantas put a number of staff around the kiosks to help, but better signs and directions would have been much smarter.

      • by sco08y ( 615665 )

        I guess I was more trying to establish the fact that there wasn't any even resembling a review of the RFID tags. They just tried to scan their luggage and it didn't work.

        It's like the new standard for journalism is, "as pointless as Youtube, but better video quality."

  • poor test (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Zebai ( 979227 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @12:22AM (#36259574)

    This seemed like a poor test to me, they tested a really small hand bag on a luggage system that normally handles well...luggage. Why not test it with suitcase or duffel bag?

    • This seemed like a poor test to me, they tested a really small hand bag on a luggage system that normally handles well...luggage. Why not test it with suitcase or duffel bag?

      This is exactly why it is a good test. These systems must also work on special cases like this, shouldn't it?

      • I couldn't care if they work on special cases or not. conveniences such as these are not for the minority of cases, they are for the majority which makes everyones experiences faster.
      • In what kind of a special case would someone try to check a fragile small item they could easily carry in their hand luggage?

        Most people I know go out of their way for the opposite. I've seen the Q-tags bags go through the airport plenty of times. Never seen anyone have a problem with it. Heck even if you don't have a Q-tag their automated baggage system works really well. I checked in last week and the entire process was faster than walking through the security checkpoint.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Go work in airport baggage handling and see very small, oversized, or strangely shaped items come through on every single flight.

      That IS a real-world test, because people do put items that size through as checked luggage.

    • by louic ( 1841824 )
      This is a poor test, but not for any of the reasons in the above 4 posts. Slashdot commenters, you disappoint me.
      To properly test this, luggage of all sizes and shapes should be tested, and more than once for every item. Also, it should be compared against exactly the same luggage that is sent using the traditional system without RFID tags.
  • luggage (Score:5, Informative)

    by kaoshin ( 110328 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @12:26AM (#36259590)
    So they use jars for luggage down under? That's not a bag, mate.
    • You call that a bag? This is a bag.

      That's not a bag, that's a jar.

      Oh, I see you've played baggy-jarry before.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Qantas has had the system operating from Perth airport for around a year now, and it's worked great the (many) times I've gone through. It's brilliant having almost no lines and no additional baggage tags for the entire checkin process.

  • So do we really care what ZDNet thinks? It's like reading Popular Science because of the "Science".

  • Know issues... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This is a known issue with many of the first generation of the tags.

    The new tags that are being sent out now do not have this problem.

    Welcome to 6 month old news...

  • The old tags have the destination of the bag written on them. If your bag gets mixed with a bunch of others how the heck are the airplane techs supposed to tell them apart when the tags are identical? Scan each one of them?

    • Why would the new tags not have anything written on them? Article never says that they won't.

      Obviously not all destinations will be equipped to handle these RFID tags, so they'd have to have written codes as well, like always.

    • The new tags still have your details printed on them (I have them on my bags), and I think you will find a working rfid tag system is far faster than you visually grabbing each tag and turning it over to read it (as to how well they work is another question, though I certainly have had no trouble with them).
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Did ZDNet try their particular chosen luggage on the old luggage system first? No doubt the check in person in the old system would have left the glass jar of candy on the concourse too. I'd say the new system did exactly what it should do. No fault there.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Holy shit, that's a tremendously long article. Who approved this news again?

  • Am I missing something, or is the "story" really as short as the Slashdot "summary"? Seems hardly worth the effort to summarise a six sentence piece into a four sentence piece.

  • Works fine (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This is a ridiculous story. I use it all the time. It's the best thing yet.
    1. Tag Qantas card on post to check-in
    2. Flight details and seat number is sent to me in an SMS.
    3. Put BAG on conveyor, tag Qantas card, press yes and no on screen.
    4. All Done.

    Maybe the story is, baggage scale at Qantas does not check items weighing under 1kg or some other threshold?

  • by jklovanc ( 1603149 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @01:26AM (#36259810)

    Great test of a system; Not. We have no idea if they actually placed the package in the correct area. "We test the system by sending a package" is not a study.

    • It's hardly a "study" to begin with, what with it being a whole 6 lines of article, but there's something to be said for the fact that a failure rate above 0 would be considered unacceptable by the person expecting the goods.

    • Sample size of zero actually. They tried checking something so small that no sensible person would check it.

      I'm not sure if it applies to the RFID system as well but if you use the automated bag check-in it rejects your bag if you're under a certain weight and asks you to see the normal check-in. This "study" stinks. I've had less problems with the automated check-in than I have had with the people behind the counter.

  • by AJWM ( 19027 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @01:48AM (#36259882) Homepage

    Denver scrapped their automated baggage system years ago. Among other things, it had a nasty habit of mangling bags which (partially) fell out of the carriers.

    • Erm, what do you think happens with current systems? You put your bag on a belt at check in, and it's sucked into the system. Surely as far as the bag's concerned, this journey is much the same as at any other airport? The only difference is, you're doing it with a machine unsupervised, as opposed to details being keyed by an employee.

    • Hmmm, because baggage handlers got the pejorative term "throwers" by placing carefully every single bag of golf clubs, packing tube, and package marked with "fragile" or "do not bend" with the utmost care?

      I'm just glad Customs stick a ball-point pen into the zip of your luggage to open it now instead of cutting the front open with a box cutter. At least it comes back in one piece, even if you are missing a bottle of perfume.
      • by dkf ( 304284 )

        baggage handlers got the pejorative term "throwers"

        I suppose it's better than calling them "tossers".

  • by sstrick ( 137546 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @01:48AM (#36259884)

    OK... I've used this 6 times so far and everytime it has worked first time. I like it as a system (although it is confusing for elderly or tech illerate people). Basically you just have to print your own boarding card and then drop your bag on a conveyor belt.

    Checking in with bags now takes 2-3 minutes. I am not sure why the jar in the test did not scan, but it was a pity it was done with one sample only (a small object). With a normal sized suit bag it has worked for me first time all 6 times I have tried and most importantly the luggage has been at the other end each time when I arrived.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    A conclusion based on a non-random sample of one? Good Grief, Charlie Brown!

  • That video pisses me off... the guy says "Science!" as if what he's doing is science, and that is something mystical and unapproachable. And it's a 3 minute video which could've been replaced with one sentence of "The image recognition system couldn't recognize my bag after 5 scans.". Fuck you Luke Hopewell, you useless idiot!

    So, what do the red lines have to do with the RFID? Wait, is it an image recognition trying to detect the shape and size of the bag, or is it a barcode scanner (with 2 lines to catch d

  • All I saw was a summary slightly shorter than the /. summary, and a bunch of ad links. Where's the actual story?

    • The rest of the article was mis-detected during the handling procedure, it has been placed on a different flight and should arrive tomorrow.
  • by drolli ( 522659 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @02:54AM (#36260114) Journal

    They work, they are cheap, you can stick them on anything,the limits are well known, and if the printer fails you can even send the tag by fax.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Do you know why a human still has to pass goods over the barcode scanner at the checkout? It is because the barcode needs to be oriented so that the scanner can read it. With RFID there is no such requirement so the system can be fully automated.

      • Yup.
        National Geographic has a documentary (in their 'Megafactories' series) about the UPS hub in the US. It shows that a large fraction of the personnel there has a single task: orienting boxes so the label can be read by the scanners.

      • by drolli ( 522659 )

        Is there anything fundamental which prevents automating the orientation of the package? Or sticking barcodes on several sides of the luggage?

        • Luggage is not regularly shaped, and adhesive tags all over (rather than looped through the handles and secured to the back of the tag itself) will either fall off or require industrial strength glue that'll you'll never manage to remove after the flight.

          You probably could design a robot arm and/or multi-camera system, and it might even be reliable, but it'd be much, much more expensive than either RFID or employing a human to scan the tags. I'm sure these RFID tags will still have barcodes and human-readab

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          You try creating a system where you can take an arbitrarily shaped object up to the largest size luggage allowable +50% for oversize and orient it in a way that consistently allows barcode reading. If you can do it you will be rich.

      • Humans pass it over because humans hand it to them. You clearly haven't checked in a bag at QANTAS. You put the bag on the conveyer tag up or back. The conveyor weighs it and then this neat little thing that looks like R2D2's head runs a scan over the top and rear of the bag to locate and scan the tag for you.

        I remember my first time using it last year. It put the bag on the conveyor and thought now how the heck am I supposed to scan this ta... oh WTF it did it itself.

        The automated checking system uses barc

    • Maybe because barcodes are difficult to read without human intervention?

    • These are for frequent travelers. The type who don't want to mess around with a normal bag-tag.

      If you go to a QANTAS check-in normally you can do everything in an automated way as well, except for the additional step of going to the machine (even if you check in online) to print your bag-tag. The same machine which checks the RFID tags also has a really neat revolving scanner that looks for the barcode automagically and scans it.

      This simply removes that step.

  • Bags are trying to form a self-organizing mesh network using RFID. That's why it doesn't work.
  • Recently they have been trying very hard to save weight and fuel to the extreme of flying Houston to Sydney without any luggage and shipping the luggage on other flights via LA to arrive a day or so later. It's not completely unsafe to fly such a long stretch since they can refuel in New Zealand if they have to, but I'm sure the passengers would have preferred to have their luggage on the same day they landed. They are not the airline they used to be and are very busy trying to get around Australian safet
    • The funny thing is that you talk as if QANTAS is the only one who does it.

    • Qantas and EVERY airline has been doing this for decades, it is rarely about fuel and weight though. luggage misses flights and arrives on others for a variety of reasons, everything from late checkins, luggage bay full, sent on wrong flight, idiot baggage handlers and any number of other reasons.Qantas aren't the worst and probably not the best either. of a couple of hundred international flights Qantas have maybe had my bags arrive seperately to me less than 10% of the time, sounds like a lot but compare
      • by dbIII ( 701233 )
        However the Houston to Sydney run is a different story - no luggage at all for any of the passengers on several of those flights. Not just a few bags missing but all of the bags missing. That's trimming things a bit much IMHO.
        • It happens, been on maybe 3 or 4 flights where no one got their luggage, A few years ago I got off a flight in seattle, 2 entire plane loads people had no luggage. It isn't anything sinister, and unless they explicitly told you it was to save fuel the more likely answer is that similar to my experience it was a breakdown of the luggage system or some other similar issue, if you had flown much you would not find this sort of occurance suprising at all.
          • by dbIII ( 701233 )

            unless they explicitly told you it was to save fuel

            That does appear to be exactly the case on this:

            On the first few runs they had to offload the bags and now they are not shipping them on the flight at all. At least now they are warning the passengers about it instead of it being the rude surprise it was previously.

  • I wonder what happens if somebody wants to take a bag full of RFID tags as luggage.
  • The summary's almost longer than the actual article.

    They checked in a minuscule bag and it never made it. Why? What happened? How could the system be improved? Etc.

    Is this crap what passes as journalism these days? At least Fox News are longer and have more information, false or biased information, granted, but more of it nonetheless.

%DCL-MEM-BAD, bad memory VMS-F-PDGERS, pudding between the ears