Airport tags to speed baggage flow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 2004, 12:00am

Authorities at Chek Lap Kok airport have started installing an electronic baggage-tracking system that will be the single largest radio frequency identification (RFID) deployment in Asia.

Experts view the project as a catalyst for other air terminals in the region to test and adopt RFID, a technology which has been more widely engaged to improve the supply chain operations of large retailers and manufacturers.

United States-based RFID technology supplier Matrics and Japan's Marubeni Group, through local systems integrator unit Mighty Giant, were recently awarded a multimillion-dollar contract by the Airport Authority to install and support the baggage-tagging infrastructure. The system will be up and running by the end of the year.

The contract is for an initial three years, with two one-year extensions. Matrics supports the Electronic Product Code-based RFID standards being promoted by the EPCglobal trade association.

Matrics senior vice-president for corporate development John Shoemaker said the project would help beef up airport security and increase passenger satisfaction through faster location and collection of luggage.

'This is part of the airport's multimillion-dollar programme to deliver many types of hardware and software to create an effective integrated solution that will leverage existing bar-code technology and provide a transition plan for operational improvement on a continuous basis,' Mr Shoemaker said.

RFID operation starts with a miniature tag, consisting of an integrated circuit with an antenna, attached to a piece of luggage. Data on this tag can be read and sent via the airwaves by a reader.

This system allows administrators immediately to retrieve and update baggage data online.

Hong Kong International Airport will need an estimated 17million RFID tags a year and several hundred readers, including handheld and conveyor fixed-position devices.

About US$3.5 million worth of Matrics RFID readers will be deployed across the airport's extensive baggage handling facilities, which are used to collect and transport luggage from about 35million airline passengers each year.

Mr Shoemaker said the award for supplying the RFID tags to Matrics remained subject to the approval of the Airport Authority's board of directors. A decision is expected next month.

Tags are supposed to make up the largest expense of any RFID deployment.

Retail and manufacturing RFID deployments have been testing thousands of tags used on large box crates but transport applications such as at Hong Kong International Airport will raise those RFID tag volumes to millions of units.

However, Mr Shoemaker said Matrics' ultra high frequency tags would cost less than 25 US cents, which is lower than the usual price of 30 cents to 40 cents.

Matrics' first important RFID transport application was accomplished last year for baggage handling at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, in the United States.

'We are also working on RFID projects with several airports in Asia,' said Mr Shoemaker, declining to identify them.

'As more countries in Asia open up their frequency bands and accept EPCglobal RFID standards, we hope to expand what we are doing in Hong Kong to include other airports and transport applications,' he said.

Before selecting Matrics' RFID systems, Hong Kong's Airport Authority put technology vendors through an extensive qualification and testing process.

Participating technology vendors had to go through a real-life deployment and performance test at the airport's baggage-handling facilities.

Wong Yiu-fai, head of technical services and procurement at the Airport Authority, said: 'Besides superior technology and a systems approach, we were most impressed with Matrics' commitment and responsiveness through this meticulous selection process.'