Alternative to GPS tracking

Apple AirTags as a cheap tracking solution for bike theft?

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VanMoof recently announced that their new S3 and X3 bikes can now be tracked via Apple’s Find My network. A few days later, Apple itself introduced the long-awaited AirTags, which also access this network.

AirTags are small trackers that are supposed to help you find a wide variety of things. First and foremost, a bunch of keys or a wallet are mentioned as examples that are often misplaced or lost in everyday life. But if you take the idea a bit further, you could also come up with the idea of equipping your bike with such an AirTag. In the event of theft, you could at least locate your bike. The low price of only 35 Euros is particularly tempting, which makes AirTags significantly cheaper than conventional GPS trackers.

Apple only

First of all, it should be said that the use of AirTags only works with a corresponding Apple device — to be exact with an iPhone SE, iPhone 6s or newer or with an iPad Pro, iPad (5th generation or newer), iPad Air 2 or newer or an iPad mini 4. In addition, at least iOS 14.5 must be installed there as software.

Apple itself also mentions bikes as a possible use for AirTags

Once these requirements have been met, an AirTag can be easily paired with the respective iOS device and integrated into the user’s Find My network. Now the tracker can also be assigned a name. Apple also suggests names like backpack, key, wallet and even “bike”. This is certainly a hint that Apple has this use case in mind as well.

Hardware

Once the AirTag is ready to go, it can be attached to the respective object. Due to the lack of a fastening option on the AirTag itself, matching attachments are of course also sold — but we can actually ignore this for bicycles. The point here is to make the tracker as invisible as possible so that it cannot be detected by thieves.

Almost as small as the battery: Apple’s AirTag from the front and the back

One positive aspect is that an AirTag is quite small: The diameter is 31.9 mm with a thickness of only 8 mm. A CR2032 button cell is installed in the center, which is not only replaceable, but should also provide about 1 year of runtime – far more than a GPS tracker. Despite the compact dimensions, however, it might be difficult to accommodate the AirTag in the seat tube or handlebars, for example. It ultimately depends on the respective bike model to find a suitable place — for example, in the area of the bottom bracket, under the bottle cage or perhaps under the saddle? With self-adhesive Velcro tape, you could attach it quite easily. Resourceful hobbyists have also already created suitable brackets for mounting on the frame in 3D printing. So here you can and must be creative.

Functionality

The way the AirTag works can be described like this: whenever an iPhone passes by the AirTag, its position is tracked. It seems that this is done completely anonymously and not even Apple itself is supposed to have access to this data. This means that the AirTag does not communicate directly with its owner, but rather reports its position via an iOS device that happens to be nearby. This info is then transmitted to the Find My network, from where the owner can view the position.

A total of several 100 million iOS devices are said to be in use worldwide by now. Thus, the chance that someone will actually pass by the AirTag should be quite high — especially in cities. In sparsely populated areas, however, this will happen more rarely. This also shows the difference to a real GPS tracker: It always communicates directly with the owner and is not dependent on other users.

Possible place for the AirTag: under the saddle

To stay with the example of the bike: via Apple’s Find My app or the corresponding website, the last reported location of the bike can be displayed with the AirTag at any time. So if the bike was stolen and people with an iPhone came by the new parking location, this location would be displayed in Find My.

The AirTag can also emit an acoustic signal, which can also be activated via Find My — but this would draw the thief’s attention to the AirTag, which is probably not what you want in this situation. There is also a Lost Mode: The contact address of the person who owns the AirTag can be stored here. This is then displayed on the iOS device of the finder, in our example possibly on the device of the thief. Here, too, the thief would now know that he or the bike is being tracked. At least the AirTag can be completely locked in Lost Mode so that it cannot be re-paired with another owner.

Limitations

A big issue with AirTags is the protection of privacy. Apple understandably wants to prevent AirTags from being used for stalking. Therefore, some functions have been implemented to prevent this. If a foreign AirTag accompanies a person for a certain time, then the AirTag automatically draws attention to itself. iOS users receive a message on their device that they are accompanied by a foreign AirTag. And those who do not have an Apple device with them will be able to hear the AirTag after three days, when it emits an acoustic signal to draw attention to itself.

If you want to track your bike with the AirTag, however, these privacy features are rather a disadvantage — they will probably draw the thief’s attention at some point.

Conclusion

Do AirTags protect against the theft of his bike? No, just like any other GPS tracker does not. However, they can be very helpful if the bike has already been stolen. Cleverly installed on the bike — i.e. invisible to a thief — the AirTag can very likely be located via Apple’s Find My network.

The thief will probably find out about the AirTag at some point, since it will draw attention to itself due to its privacy protection mechanisms. However, some time will pass until then, which one can use for tracking. If you notice a theft quickly, you have a chance to receive a signal from the AirTag and start searching.

The AirTags certainly do not provide absolute security in terms of bicycle tracking — but they have two other advantages: First, the low price of 35 Euros. Apple users can simply try the experiment for this relatively low cost. In addition, thanks to the long battery life, you don’t really have to worry about the AirTag: once installed, you’ll probably have peace of mind for about a year. And there is also the good feeling of a bit of security, because the bike equipped in this way could be found again after a theft.

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