Stolen Bike Recovery and Apple's AirTag
Earlier this year, Cam shared the story of Jono Lo recovering his stolen bike. Jono quickly took action to track down his beloved Rocky, and once he'd confirmed its location, sought help from local police. He was one of the lucky ones. Stolen bikes aren't recovered often, but on the same day, with the same parts on it? That’s like finding a unicorn at the end of the rainbow.
Most stolen bikes are never seen by their owners again, and for many, the feeling of loss vastly exceeds what you'd expect for a 'theft of sports equipment.' I find it interesting that a material object like a bicycle can cause such heartache. Riders who haven't had the misfortune may find that melodramatic but it feels puzzingly horrible. When you first realize your pride and joy isn't where it's supposed to be, your heart sinks, then, personally, I try to look for another explanation. Maybe I put it somewhere else, or a friend is messing with me. While these thoughts busy my mind, my eyes dart in every direction, hoping for a glimpse of something that in reality, has vanished.
I first experienced that feeling when my childhood home was robbed, while I was inside. Subsequent break-ins, which included the loss of bikes, have made me overly protective of my gear. Bikes are simply material possessions, and I often have to remind myself of this. The people in our lives, along with our health and safety, are what's important. Everything else is replaceable.
And yet our bikes bring so much joy; they're a release from the world around us, a moment of much-needed silence, a positive outlet and a source of pride. They become an extension of us, which is why losing one is so hard. I even get nostalgic when it comes time to sell a bike.
Anyone who's had something meaningful stolen understands how shit it feels. This leads some of us to take extra measures to prevent that sickening sensation; from unique locks and big heavy chains to upgraded security systems. And of course it starts with the obvious, like keeping your bike in sight. There are, however, subtle and devious tactics as well. You can extend your dropper, pre-shift your gears so a pedal stroke drops the chain to the small cog, or just leave it upside down. Running my brakes opposite to most Canadians is somewhat comforting too – there’s a chance a thief will eat dirt while getting away
Regardless of what we do, shit will happen. I'm always interested in technologies that could ease bike theft anxiety. With tracking technology for the masses always improving, the possibility of locating our stolen bikes has never been so real. There are plenty of these devices around, Tile being a good example, but their success relies on widespread adoption of their system, and that doesn't seem to be on the horizon.
Tile devices aren't even intended as theft deterrents, which results in some flaws in the functionality when used for this purpose. In an ideal world, a hard-mounted G.P.S. tracker in something like a crank, as Andrew has previously suggested, could work great. We’re not there yet anyway and it may be a while before we are, but the potential is solid.*
*A group of Vancouver riders will soon be launching a G.P.S-enabled device with similar inspiration. Check out what Fraser Vaage and the crew of Snik have been up to.
Apple AirTags' Potential
Apple recently released the AirTag tracking device. It's not the perfect system for our purposes but it does have the potential to help. An advantage it has over Tile, which also promotes a bike tracker, is the vastly greater adoption of Apple phones and devices. In 2020 Apple claimed more than 900 million of their iPhones were in use globally and statistics from earlier this year reveal 118 million in the U.S. In contrast, Tile claims to have 2 million devices in use, globally.
In addition to the large network of Apple phones, other Apple devices capable of running the Find My app. could also help locate a lost AirTag. Apple claims there were 9.8 billion active devices globally in 2020 and that 1 billion devices are connected to Find My. That number is likely lower when considering devices used regularly enough to help locate a missing AirTag, but it's promising.
Users of other devices can also help locate an AirTag. A good samaritan with an Android device can scan the AirTag and contact the owner, extending the reach. This however, relies on that good samaritan finding a bike they believe to be stolen and locating an AirTag on that bike.
How the AirTag Works
AirTags seamlessly connect to Apple devices when they power up. A nearby Apple device – most will use their iPhone – will receive an alert requesting a label for the AirTag. Once labelled, the Find My app. can be used to identify your AirTag-equipped property (bike, bag, keys etc.). An important note is that to access the latest tracking functionality, an iPad or iPhone product needs iOS 14.5 or higher.
If an AirTag is attached to a bike that goes missing, opening the Find My app. and switching on lost mode for the appropriate tag will begin the search. The last known location of the tag should be shown and if it moves, nearby Apple devices with Find My set up can alert the owner to its new location. Notifications can also be set, allowing your iPhone to automatically alert any time the tag is detected.
Skip to the eight-minute mark to see how the bike recovery pans out.
Moving quickly, a victim can head to the last known location and try getting within range to pick up a Bluetooth signal, at which point newer iPhone users (11 or 12) will be able to track with directions on their phone. It appears older iPhone users, myself included, will only get an address or general location and won’t be able to access the more accurate Precision Finding functionality available thanks to the new U1 chip, which guides users to the tag when within range.
How the 'antistalker' functionality works, explained.
Even with the latest and greatest iPhone, there are limitations to the AirTag. Getting within range to connect with the lost object can be problematic, particularly if it’s somewhere in an apartment building, like with Jono Lo’s story. They’re not G.P.S. devices and the location a tag was last picked up appears to be where the device that found the signal is based. In either situation, extra sleuthing is required but at least the right haystack can be found.
Apple has also considered privacy. Their thought is the AirTag could be used maliciously to track unsuspecting victims. There is no location data or location history stored in the AirTag and if someone has a tag nearby and is using an iOS device with 14.5 or later, the tag will alert them to its presence.
On the surface, this kills the ability of an AirTag to help a rider find a stolen bike, but it doesn’t work quite as Apple makes it sound, and to our benefit. In practice, the tag doesn’t seem to alert a thief to its presence until they reach their ‘home.’ That buys time to locate the missing bike and potentially report it as stolen before a smart thief has an opportunity to remove it. Some people testing the capabilities have found the alert didn't occur immediately after arriving ‘home,’ buying victims more time.
AirTag's Ace in the Hole
The biggest benefit to the AirTag over similarly priced devices is the aforementioned billion-strong network of Apple devices connected to Find My, improving the odds of digital interaction with a lost AirTag.
Life of the user-replaceable AirTag battery is estimated at 12 months. Tile's Mate and Pro models also feature replaceable batteries but other models which do not are said to remain powered for up to three years, at which time they are rendered useless.
The 'Ultra Wideband' functionality of the AirTag also increases the chances of the owner zeroing in on a lost tag. Tile only has Bluetooth functionality, claimed to be useful from within 150-feet while the range and precision of Ultra Wideband are only available to people with the latest Apple devices.
Some of the weaknesses to the AirTags clearly shown in this Wall Street Journal video. But what caught my attention was the G.P.S. dog tracker (with subscription service). Maybe this is a better route to test?
It’s no perfect solution but if the AirTag improves recovery odds for only 29 USD, it's undoubtedly worthwhile. If Jono hadn’t seen his wheels being carried into the Empress Hotel, he likely wouldn’t have his bike back. But an AirTag stashed on the bike could have alerted him to its location, possibly even before the thief got home.
With the low cost of entry, I’m going to give it a go and will do some tests to see how well it works for our situation. I particularly want to see what happens with the tag once it's set to 'lost,' which may prevent a thief from being alerted that it's nearby. If you've used one already, let us know how it has performed. Ideally, a G.P.S. tracking device isn't far away but I'm hopeful the AirTag will be a helpful stop-gap measure.