Delta has success in RFID baggage tag test

But a wide-scale rollout of RFID technology is being slowed by lack of money

Delta Air Lines Inc. last month tracked 40,000 passenger bags equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags from check-in to loading on an aircraft in a test with an accuracy level that ranged from 96.7% to 99.8%, far better than the 80% to 85% rate achieved with bar code scanners, according to the airline and its technology partners in the test.

Pat Rary, manager of baggage strategy at Atlanta-based Delta, described the test at the Jacksonville, Fla., airport as the first one in the airline industry of RFID bag tags that provided a "full end-to-end view" of bags from check-in to aircraft loading. Rary said the test, conducted with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), also met a key criterion for any technology with the potential for widespread use: It was "invisible" to the airline's check-in agents.

The test, which ran from Oct. 23 through Nov. 15 (see story), used tags and readers from Matrics Inc. in Columbia, Md., and SCS Corp. in San Diego. Rary said Delta has received tentative approval from the TSA to run another test in January with tags from Alien Technology Corp. in Morgan Hill, Calif.

Rary said the January test will allow Delta to work out other methods of deploying the tags, including the use of better printers to write bag-routing information onto an RFID chip embedded inside a standard bar-code label. The goal of the tests is to help Delta develop a bag-tracking system with a "zero mishandling rate."

Despite the RFID success, Reid Davis, a Delta spokesman, warned that the airline and others in the cash-strapped industry would need to proceed slowly with any systemwide rollout of the bag tags. Delta operates at 81 major airports worldwide, Davis said, and to equip all of them with RFID bag-sorting systems would require "a significant capital expenditure."

Phil Heacock, director of advanced sortation technology in the Louisville, Ky., office of FKI Logistex Group Ltd., said that with one exception, the RFID bag tracking system in Jacksonville provided read rates well above 99%. Scanners on the bag belts inside the terminal averaged a read rate of 99.8%, and scanners on aircraft belt loaders had a read rate of 99.9%, Heacock said. FKI Logistex Group served as systems integrator for the fall test.

That exception occurred with RFID scanners mounted on universal load devices (ULD), which automatically load containers filled with bags. Those scanners averaged 96.7% accurate, Heacock said. That's because the ULDs are made of metal with a canvas door, and the metal impedes radio signals, cutting the read accuracy. That problem can be solved by coating the interior of the ULDs with a material that will better reflect radio waves, Heacock said.

The test integrated RFID tags into the existing Delta, Jacksonville Airport and TSA systems, Heacock said. For the test, Heacock said, Delta modified a standard bag-tag printer to capture data normally used to print bar codes. That information was then written onto an RFID tag inserted into the paper bag-tag strip. That allowed RFID readers to track the progress of bags throughout the airport bag-handling system, including the explosive-detection machines operated by the TSA.

The belt loaders and ULD loaders were equipped with RFID readers and were hard-wired to rugged computers equipped with 802.11b wireless LANs, which transmitted data to Delta's back-end baggage systems, an integration process Rary said was "not easy."

Both the Matrics and SCS tags operate in the same 902-to-928-MHz bands that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has selected for tags it plans to use in its supply chain starting in 2005. Although Rary said "we liked what we saw with the SCS" tags, he is hesitant to use them because he considers SCS technology proprietary. Rary said he wants RFID tags based on standards developed by EPCglobal Inc., an RFID standards organization.

"It makes no sense [for Delta] to get locked in" to a proprietary standard, Rary said. That's one reason it wants to test RFID bag tags from Alien Technology, which developed tags to the EPCglobal standard.

EPCglobal is a joint venture between Uniform Code Council Inc. in Lawrenceville, N.J., and EAN International in Brussels.

SCS President Barry Cropper denied that his company's technology is proprietary and said it would be misleading to label it so. He said SCS would work to ensure that its technology meets EPCglobal standards.

Rary also wants very low-cost tags, costing as little as a penny each, if he can get them.

That won't happen anytime soon, however, said John Shoemaker, vice president of corporate business development at Matrics. He noted that a business card costs two or three cents to produce. Matrics won a contract last month to supply McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas with 100 million RFID tags at a cost of 25 cents each (see story), a dramatic price drop the late 1990s, when the tags cost $5 to $20 each.

Mike Liard, an analyst at Venture Development Corp. in Natick, Mass., said that tag costs are falling and will continue to do so as Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense incorporate the technology into their supply chains.

Gene Alvarez, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said that although funding for RFID bag-tracking systems is a challenge, he expects it to eventually become a standard throughout the airline industry.

FKI's Heacock said that airports could relieve airlines of some of the costs by installing RFID bag-tracking systems. Heacock said he recently met with officials at Hong Kong International Airport to discuss RFID technology and expects that airport to issue a request for bids on an airportwide system by the end of the year, with installation slated for late 2004.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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