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In the movies, we often see a small device placed on something or someone which then allows the device to be tracked to its location or even while moving. It would be fantastic to have a similar thing for knowing where your luggage is. After some googling, I found the article Best Luggage Tracking & Locating Devices for Travel 2016-2017, so this type of device seems to exist.

Going to the manufacturer's site, things are not clear. Trakdo for example uses a GPS and reports its position via GSM which means one needs to have cellular service at the destination which is rarely the case. Lugloc says that GPS are unreliable in airports, so they use Cell-Tower Connected Technology instead but still report the position via its own SIM card. Tile does not seem to have much use except in very close proximity which is when tracking is the least needed.

What tracking devices exist to report the exact position of luggage on-demand?

By this, I mean that I can check my phone either via GSM or WiFi and query the location of luggage at the time I am looking for it.

Situations I would like covered:

  • Luggage left at departure airport.
  • Luggage put on the wrong plane, train, bus, ferry, etc.
  • Luggage taken from hotel, bus cargo hold, etc.
  • Luggage places in the wrong part of airport (wrong carousel, storage, lost&found area, stuck in customs, etc).
  • There's a reason you only see these things in the movies. A real device of this sort needs a data connection and unfortunately we're still a little way off from having universal free wireless internet everywhere on the planet... – brhans Jan 12 '17 at 20:01
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    @brhans There are several devices that do exactly this - they are certainly not the realm of movies-only! – Doc Jan 12 '17 at 20:05
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    I have some TrakDot trackers but they're nowhere near as useful as the Hollywood version. In practice I get an e-mail (or text, my choice) when my luggage arrives at an airport. It does not have the precision to do better than that. (And can be fooled by flying over an airport at low altitude.) It's almost worldwide, there are a couple of countries they don't work in because the cell service doesn't support them. – Loren Pechtel Jan 12 '17 at 20:37
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    Tile/etc. do have the 'crowdsource' feature, meaning any other tile user would be helping you locate it. Probably wouldn't work in parts (loading into the plane for example) but at least would have a good shot at telling you what airport your luggage was lost at... – Joe Jan 12 '17 at 20:59
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    @Tom No (at least not in theory). Only you can track your item. (In theory.) – Joe Jan 13 '17 at 1:08
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What tracking devices exist to report the exact position of luggage on-demand?

None exist that work worldwide.

There exists no method of communication that works worldwide, indoor and outdoor.

Anything based on GSM or other mobile phone technology will only work where there is coverage. This will help if your suitcase was sent to, say, the wrong domestic airport, but if your suitcase drops out of the plane over the middle of the Atlantic (oops!), it will not tell you.

Anything based on satellite phones does not work indoors. In this case, should your suitcase drop out of the plane mid-Atlantic, you will know exactly where it is (yay!). But if it's lost its tag and is somewhere in a warehouse under concrete walls and roofs, it has no way of reaching you. The same is true for GPS, but GPS needs far less signal than satellite phone so it is a little more resistant to walls and roofs than a satellite phone.

Anything based on radio may be too far away to reach you.

  • This is to be the current state of tech. Continuing my research, I found many devices which get part of the way there but they either give you GPS which as not accurate indoors or GSM which is not very accurate but does better inside buildings. BT versions are useful except in very close proximity, some do GSM+BT which is as good as there seems to be now. – Itai Jan 16 '17 at 14:30
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Real-time Google Map Tracker might do it in certain areas.

Some more expensive alternatives if you're desperate:

Inreach Explorer and Explorer+ by DeLorme (now a part of Garmin) is an expensive way to do it anywhere in the world by Iridium. Inreach SE and SE+ can probably do it more cheaply. Maybe also the "SPOT Gen3" which is cheaper than either of those. I am not sure about the SE and the SPOT because I only briefly looked at them before buying the Explorer.

Many cell phones can report their GPS positions, some of them by WiFi.  An old used one's price is probably negligible compared to the cell plan to make it work.

Note that Iridium won't work inside most airports, so the expensive solution may not be a solution. But GPS won't work in most airports and cell system won't work in the places luggage is likely to be, so some of the inexpensive ones won't be any good either!

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    You are asking for it to work inside the airport though? GPS will be very inaccurate (if it works at all) inside a building. – WGroleau Jan 13 '17 at 2:09
  • Web search for "GPS Tracker" finds a lot more than three or seven. As does "luggage locator" which results also include "10 best" and "7 best." – WGroleau Jan 13 '17 at 3:21
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    Satellite phones do not work indoors, so the Iridium solution will be useless. – gerrit Jan 13 '17 at 11:07
  • GPS doesn't work indoors either. Actually, both could work somewhat in some buildings, but not in most airports. But this point is worth adding. The items in that paragraph would be overkill anyway. (and expensive!) – WGroleau Jan 13 '17 at 12:31
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Addition: After explaining that this is practically impossible, I found that there is a commercial product that claims to do this. A company named Lugloc (the new 3G version is called GEGO) makes a tracking device especially for luggage (there’s also a bag by Delsey that uses their technology). I haven’t seen or tested it, but it is probably the closest you’ll currently get. According to their product description it uses GPS and a SIM card. There is a monthly fee.

Original Answer:

gerrit's answer is already great, but I thought I'd explore a bit what the constraints on such a device would be. If you want a device, there are four main things that need to be solved:

  • Getting the position
  • Communicating the position back home
  • Power
  • Regulatory

Getting a position

As you already pointed out, GPS is pretty precise but needs a satellite signal, which can be blocked by buildings. It can also take a long time to acquire the signal - and your bag will almost always be inside.

Your mobile phone therefore uses a form of assisted GPS which uses cell tower information, and also WiFi positioning. These methods work somewhat reliably inside and are probably the best way to track a bag that is inside most of the time. However this requires multiple receivers, an internal database and some computing power.

Assisted GPS will work well if your bag is in an airport or other hub, where there are plenty of WiFi networks around. It will do much worse in bag sorting facility that is underground and behind thick concrete walls.

There is no method to get a position while in flight: Your bag will inside a metal container, which is inside a metal tube, which is pretty good shielding for any satellite signal. The plane will also often be out of reach from any cell towers. Tracking may work in land vehicles, but your bag still isn't going to get a window seat with great reception...

Communication

For sending the position home, you have essentially two options: The mobile phone network or a satellite network. As gerrit pointed out, satellites for communications are blocked as easily as those for GPS. The phone network is your best bet, even if it isn't available everywhere. You can't use WiFi networks, even if they are available, as your device wouldn't know how to connect.

Power

So far, the ideal device would be your mobile phone plus special software. But with that, the battery would run out quickly. GPS receivers are a huge power drain, as is any form of wireless communication.

Usually such a tracking device will only power up every once in a while in order to conserve power. Still you'd need specialized device with a fair-sized battery, and it would probably only check in every hour or so.

Regulations

If you want your bag to ride on an airplane, you'd have to take regulations into account. While it is perfectly legal to operate GPS (which is only a receiver), you are not allowed to operate any transmission equipment on an airplane - so at the very least your device has to somehow detect that it is inside an aircraft and turn itself off for the duration of the flight.

Batteries are generally okay. Still, though I don't know of any specific regulations, airlines might also complain about the fact that there is some device that is actively using a LiIon cell during flight (Lithium-Ion batteries are the ones used in cell phones and the like. They can cause nasty fires, and it is more likely that they go bad during use than when the device is switched off).

Available devices today

Most GPS trackers that you can buy are made for a different scenario: They are supposed to be mounted in a place with good reception and cell phone signal -- not to be shoved in a bag that is then put in all kinds of places and shipped around the world.

There are some "passive" beacons (NFC chips) that can be picked up by smart phones nearby. The idea with those is that if it gets near a phone with the app installed, that app will send the position back to the owner. As those apps are not that widespread, it doesn't work that well.

You best bet, at least for air travel, would be to get access to the airline's tracking system. While it might not be 100% reliable, it would allow you to check where your bag tag was last scanned; and it would probably work better in many cases than an "independent" solution.

protected by Community Jul 5 at 11:14

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