770536-stolen-bikes-web.jpg
Editorial

Stolen Bike Recovery and Apple's AirTag

Words A.J. Barlas
Photos Title Image: Cindy Goodman/North Shore News
Date May 18, 2021
Reading time

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.

geometron-g1-050819-ajbarlas-06261.jpg

It may be a material object but for many of us, our bikes are an extension of ourselves, carefully chosen and built to suit our needs.

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.

TiGr Titanium Mini Lock AndrewM

Titanium locks to secure your bike? Photo: Andrew Major

Preventive Measures

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

OTTOLOCK Cinch Lock AndrewM

The Ottolock Cinch Lock is another option that's a good deterrent but far from foolproof. Photo: Andrew Major

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-airtag-device-pairing.jpg

The Apple AirTag pairs seamlessly with Apple devices, but use with the latest iOS and devices unlocks full functionality. Photo: Apple

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.

apple-iphone-12-airtag-tracking.jpg

Apple device users broaden the network able to help track a lost item. Photo: Apple

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.

Possible Drawbacks

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.

Related Stories

Trending on NSMB

Comments

mrbrett
+2 Greg Bly Angu58
mrbrett  - May 18, 2021, 6:49 a.m.

AJ, intriguing idea. Maybe set up a test where one of the crew there "steals" your bike and you need to find it?  Like very expensive hide and go seek ...

Reply

AJ_Barlas
0
AJ Barlas  - May 18, 2021, 8:22 a.m.

Exactly. I'll have them try some stuff with their phones too. It will be an interesting experiment.

Reply

craw
0
Cr4w  - May 18, 2021, 9:11 a.m.

Bike beacon test!

Reply

Vikb
+3 Cr4w Lu Kz Angu58
Vik Banerjee  - May 18, 2021, 7:29 a.m.

Insure your expensive bikes adequately. Bike coverage for home owner's and renters' insurance varies from shitty to amazing so it's worth shopping around. If you want to add some other relocation technology to the mix that's great, but knowing you are going to be okay if your bike is stolen is worth a lot in terms of peace of mind vs. hoping to track down the bike after it's been stolen.

Reply

AJ_Barlas
0
AJ Barlas  - May 18, 2021, 8:24 a.m.

For sure. Thankfully my insurance experiences have been exceptional when I've had bikes stolen, so I'm thankful for that. But it doesn't make having it stolen feel any less violating and I'd rather not go through all that shit again, both the loss or chasing down everything for a replacement.

Reply

monsieurgage
0
Gage Wright  - May 18, 2021, 9:13 a.m.

Any recommendations for home insurance companies who won't undervalue the bike?

Reply

Jotegir
+1 Cr4w
Lu Kz  - May 18, 2021, 9:38 a.m.

You need to have the conversation with the agent on the phone. Every one I've dealt with has valued them very low but was willing to up the value substantially for an additional fee. I am currently with TD and it was a non-noticeable difference when divided over the whole year. I understand I am now grandfathered for that price structure though.

Reply

mrbrett
0
mrbrett  - May 18, 2021, 10:06 a.m.

Just bought TD home insurance a couple of weeks ago. Declared a value of our bikes, hardly cost anything. Well worth it.

Reply

craw
0
Cr4w  - May 18, 2021, 10:31 a.m.

Even if your bikes are slightly underinsured in this situation it's a big relief to know that you'll get a 6-7k cheque that will cover the bulk of the replacement.

Poz
0
Poz  - May 18, 2021, 7:57 p.m.

Just moved to TD as well two weeks ago. $10,000 coverage for no noticeable extra.

Incredibly even covers in ride damage (even during competition).

IslandLife
+2 Greg Bly AJ Barlas
IslandLife  - May 18, 2021, 12:07 p.m.

I use Square One and for my bike, they just had me send the receipt/invoice and if it's stolen or damaged beyond repair (yes, If I destroy it while riding they will pay me, unless I'm racing), they will cut me a cheque for the total based on the invoice less deductible ($500).

So, I have a rider that covers all our "sporting equipment" up to $17k and it's costs me just under $5 a month.  Less if your coverage is for less.

Reply

IslandLife
+1 hotlapz
IslandLife  - May 18, 2021, 12:12 p.m.

Yes, insurance is very, very important.  And no one with a bike over 2k should be without it.  Especially since it's so cheap.  But, think about if your bike/s was/were stolen tomorrow.  Could you even get a replacement right now?  How long would you have wait?  It's most likely you wouldn't have a bike until the fall, if you're lucky.  Also there's the deductible... so you'd be out some money as well.

Reply

hotlapz
+1 Tjaard Breeuwer
hotlapz  - May 18, 2021, 7:53 a.m.

That Ottolock is trash. The combination lock mechanism will eventually jam and you won't be able to unlock it. I had this happen to me in front of the Whole Foods on Cambie. Surprisingly, no one batted an eye when I retrieved my bike with a bolt cutter at noon on a Sunday.

Reply

AJ_Barlas
0
AJ Barlas  - May 18, 2021, 8:25 a.m.

Oh jeez. That's the crazy thing and a question worth asking readers. If you saw someone cutting a lock, would you ask them what's going on? I'd like to think I would…

Reply

Wander89
+3 IslandLife Alex Durant Pete Roggeman
Carl Herbst  - May 18, 2021, 8:11 a.m.

We don't even have any iPhones in the house, but immediately saw the value when they were announced and ordered a 4 pack.  Stuck one inside the frames of our main bikes (frame cubbies ftw), my onewheel, and my Miata. So far it seems to work impressively well even in my relatively low-population town.

Find My App

(This screenshot is a few days old when I was showing off to my friends)

For reference -- the iPad I used to pair the airtags had run out of battery a few days beforehand, all of these "sightings" are from other people's devices -- not my own. My Druid was spotted in drive-through line when it was in the back of my truck post-ride, my onewheel was spotted at the grocery I went to for lunch, and then the Spectral and Miata were spotted inside my garage by someone walking or driving by.

I will start keeping the ipad charged to keep an eye on them at home, as after 3-4 days the airtags did beep at me when I moved my onewheel. But so far, pretty interesting.

Reply

AJ_Barlas
-1 analog7
AJ Barlas  - May 18, 2021, 6:38 p.m.

This is really interesting and quite promising. Thanks for sharing how it’s working for you so far, Carl. I’m looking forward to checking them out more.

Reply

rnayel
+8 Cr4w AJ Barlas JVP Lu Kz Cam McRae Angu58 IslandLife Pete Roggeman
RNAYEL  - May 18, 2021, 9:07 a.m.

There is a guy on Reddit who designed & 3D printed an airtag holder that sits between your frame and water bottle cage (like the pump mounts),but is well hidden by the cage. Pretty neat and he's open sourced it. If I can find the post, I'll link it in this comment.

Reply

JVP
0
JVP  - May 18, 2021, 10:35 a.m.

I'm wondering if I could tape one with mastic tape into my OneUp bung for the steerer-mounted tool.

Reply

Wander89
0
Carl Herbst  - May 18, 2021, 2:40 p.m.

I want to say they're a little wider than the steerer, but hmm, maybe not the bottom ID

Reply

Poz
0
Poz  - May 18, 2021, 8:01 p.m.

I would be concerned about losing some reception if inside the steerer.

Reply

JVP
+2 Cam McRae Pete Roggeman
JVP  - May 18, 2021, 9:25 a.m.

Thanks for this article AJ, I've been wondering about these AirTags for bikes. Looking forward to your follow up.

There will be at least one of these in my gearbag in my van. Had the window smashed last year, and even though I make an effort to not leave much valuable in the car, it was $600 + window replacement (insurance luckily) just for the many little random bits in the bag like shock pump, portable pump, med kit, sunscreen, extra gloves, windbreaker, the freaking jeans for after-ride they also took, etc. etc. Added up shockingly quickly (bad pun intentional).

Reply

AJ_Barlas
0
AJ Barlas  - May 18, 2021, 9:55 a.m.

Bloody hell, that's nasty! Where were you parked?

Reply

JVP
0
JVP  - May 18, 2021, 10:19 a.m.

Seattle/North Bend area, I was riding the Raging River system and parked at a little "backside" entrance off of Hwy 18. I made the mistake of parallel parking just a stone's throw further down the street than normal since the primary spot was full. Just out of view enough to tempt the smash-and-grab tweakers.

I'm just happy they didn't saw off my catalytic converter while they were at it, that seems to be as bad as bike theft right now.

Reply

AJ_Barlas
0
AJ Barlas  - May 18, 2021, 6:40 p.m.

Yikes! Definitely going to be more careful with where the car gets parked, here and next time we visit Seattle.

Reply

IslandLife
+1 AJ Barlas
IslandLife  - May 18, 2021, 12:17 p.m.

I used to work at a hotel in downtown Vancouver and in the underground where the staff parked, people's cars would get broken into all the time... even with nothing in their vehicles.  We started just leaving our windows down and doors unlocked so that you didn't have to deal with damage/insurance/deductibles etc.

That was 15 years ago.. think security was beefed up and things changed but... that was crazy.

Reply

BadNudes
0
BadNudes  - May 18, 2021, 10:06 a.m.

Does anyone register their bikes? When police and cycling communities start using bike registries, bike theft has dropped considerably, demonstrated in Vancouver with the 529 Garage registry. This video goes deep on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48V9Xtpgq9I (for those short on time skip to ~15 min)

I have had bikes stolen but I don't register my bikes, I just try to make mine more difficult to steal than most. We shouldn't have to just accept bike theft as an inevitable part of living in a city however. (From the video above) 7.5% of bike theft victims never replace their stolen bike, and 15% ride less often after having a bike stolen. Effectively addressing bike theft could do so much more for cycling than adding another haphazardly planned bike lane and a few more bike racks. The guys behind Vancouver's (relative) success seem to think the identifiable registration badge is key (once you've got the police actually looking at the registry of course). This sounds like a few city hall meetings away from becoming a bike licensing scheme which opens the can of worms so much wider, I'm not sure how I feel about it. But I am genuinely curious what the best comments section in mtb thinks of the subject.

Reply

WheelNut
0
WheelNut  - May 19, 2021, 11:45 a.m.

I think they are on the right track! I really need to go out into the garage and get on top of my Garage 529 registrations...

It would be really amazing to see this concept taken one step further and have a standardized bicycle VIN number implemented and then connect that up to a provincial registration administered by the government. This would add a layer of complication, but I suspect the small yearly registration fee would pay for itself fast in making bike theft much less lucrative for thieves as selling stolen bikes would be a lot more difficult.

Reply

tripsforkidsvancouver
0
tripsforkidsvancouver  - May 18, 2021, 10:54 a.m.

I speculated for a day on how to mount an apple air tag! I won't say more (AND YOU SHOULDN'T) as local thieves will monitor these comments. The waterbottle cage mount is THE BEST! If you pair it with the security allen key bolts with the circle in the middle theives will literally have no option but to ditch your bike! I have these security bolts on my cranks, brakes, top cap and stem so my bike can't get piece-robbed locked downtown.

https://www.bicyclebolts.com/

Reply

Please log in to leave a comment.