Apple AirTag: Bike tracking solution to rely on?

The Apple AirTag has been on the market since April 2020. The small round gadget is supposed to help forgetful people find a misplaced item such as a key or wallet. It is also often advertised as an anti-theft device. But is it really suitable for that? We clarify in this article how the Apple AirTags work and for which use cases they are the right choice. As experts in the field of e-bike and bicycle theft protection, we also answer the question: Does an Apple AirTag attached to a bicycle or e-bike protect against theft?

Apple AirTags for bicycle theft protection in a nutshell:

  • The Apple AirTag is a simple Bluetooth tracker, comparable to the chips from Tile and Chipolo.

  • The tracking of objects with the Apple AirTag works via the crowd GPS principle and Apple’s “Where-is” network. The prerequisite is that a person with the “Where-is” app is in the vicinity.

  • The AirTag is not suitable for protecting bicycles or e-bikes from theft. This is because the chip is not a stand-alone GPS tracker. You only get the location of a stolen bike if it passes a person with the “Where is” app activated. In addition, AirTags have no motion alarm and Apple’s anti-stalking feature increases the risk of thieves becoming aware of the chip.

  • The best theft protection for e-bikes is the GPS tracker BikeTrax from PowUnity. It alerts you to any attempted theft on your smartphone. With seamless real-time tracking, it ensures that you get a stolen e-bike back quickly.

How Apple AirTags work – This is how the Bluetooth tracker works!

The Apple AirTag is a simple Bluetooth tracker that Apple released in 2020. The technology and the way it works are not new. On the contrary. There are many Bluetooth tracker providers like Apple’s AirTags, for example Tile or Chipolo, that promote the precision finding of objects.

In all cases, the tags are simple Bluetooth chips that continuously emit a signal to their environment that says “Here I am”. If an iPhone with activated Bluetooth is nearby, the location of Apple’s AirTags is displayed in Apple’s “Find My” app. If a smartphone with the Tile or Chipolo app is nearby (with Bluetooth activated), the location of the Tile or Chipolo tag is displayed there.

Mounting the Apple AirTag with a holder

In addition to key rings and tags, there are mounts that you can use to inconspicuously attach an Apple AirTag to your bike. These are primarily used for mounting under the bike seat, on seat tube or bottle cage.

Alternatively, you can attach the Bluetooth trackers with adhesive tape. However, this has the disadvantage that a thief will notice them more quickly.

Basically, once a thief has discovered the AirTag, he can usually remove it easily.

The “Find my” network – this is how tracking works

You can locate an Apple AirTag or any other apple devices like an apple watch via Apple’s “Find My” app. Strictly speaking, your smartphone only locates the AirTag at a short distance, sometimes only a few metres, depending on local conditions. In addition, the so-called “Crowd GPS” principle applies, which, however, has nothing to do with real GPS location data.

It works as follows:

  • As soon as the object comes near another person with the “Find My” app, their smartphone forwards the location to your smartphone.
  • For the tracking of a bicycle, this means that your bicycle is only tracked as soon as it passes a person with a corresponding app.

As you can see, the tracking of Apple’s AirTags works differently from the tracking via a GPS device mounted in your e-bike. The latter continuously receives coded radio signals from NAVSTAR GPS satellites, calculates its position and transmits it to a device such as a mobile phone, laptop or iPad. It is independent of other people or nearby devices.

Apple AirTag on your bike – why it won’t get you your stolen bike back

There are 5 reasons why an AirTag will only get you back a stolen bike or e-bike if you are very lucky.

1. apple’s anti-stalking feature

If a teenager puts an Apple AirTag in the pocket of the girl of his dreams, he can see where she is at all times. To prevent unwanted tracking, Apple has built in a feature that alerts the other person after a certain amount of time on their iPhone that there is an Apple AirTag nearby and that they are being tracked.

Apple is thus one of the few companies which discourage unwanted tracking. A welcome feature when it comes to privacy and protection of people. However, if the thief who stole your bike is actively alerted to Apple AirTag bike tracking, he is likely to do the following:

  1. He turns off his smartphone.
  2. He then drives to an area where he is sure there is no single AirTag, Apple device, apple product or any mac devices within 30 metres (maximum Bluetooth range).
  3. There he calmly removes the AirTag from the bike or e-bike.

Sometimes a reach under the saddle is enough to remove the device. In this case, steps 1 and 2 can be dispensed with.

2. An Apple AirTag is not a GPS bike tracker

The second reason why you are unlikely to get your bike with an AirTag back if it is stolen is a little more subtle:

The AirTag determines its own location via the GPS of other Apple devices. In practice, it looks like this:

  1. A bike equipped with an Apple AirTag passes Person B’s iPhone.
  2. If person B has activated Bluetooth and GPS on the iPhone or iOS device, their iOS system transmits the location of the bike to the owner (person A).

If you lose an AirTag or an item like a bike that is registered to your Apple ID, you can set the “lost mode” in the “Find My” app. Within the app you can add a message saying that the item is lost and include your phone number or email address.

If an iPhone user within the “Find my” network finds your item, he can use a supported device to see a website with the lost AirTag’s “lost mode” message and contact the owner.

But what happens if person B has not activated Bluetooth, GPS or both? Then, understandably, the precision finding cannot be transmitted to the bike’s rightful owner.

In other words, the Apple AirTag is not a stand-alone GPS tracker. Rather, it is a bridge between the bicycle and a terminal device that is integrated into a satellite-based positioning system. This bridge, however, can brake very easily.

3. The AirTag tracks your bike with gaps and often not at all

In an open field, Bluetooth theoretically has a maximum range of about 30 metres. In practice, it is considerably less. This means that the bicycle or the AirTag attached to it must come much closer than 30 metres to person B in order to be detected.

As soon as the bicycle or e-bike with the AirTag attached moves away from person B, the tracker detect is no longer correct. Only when it approaches a new person (person C) the precise location is displayed for a short time – the provided person C has to own an iPhone with Bluetooth and GPS activated.

This may work, but it is extremely unlikely. It is even more likely that an “outdated” position or no position at all will be displayed because the bike or e-bike has already moved on and there haven’t been any nearby AirTags. No chance to track your bike with the last reported location.

4. AirTags do not have a motion alarm

Quick action is promising in case of theft. I would rather prevent theft or solve it in the shortest possible time than have to search for my bike or e-bike later. Quick action requires a motion alarm. A motion alarm requires an acceleration sensor.

How does a motion alarm work? PowUnity’s BikeTrax has an accelerometer built in. When you park your e-bike, you activate the alarm mode in the PowUnity app. The acceleration sensor detects whether the e-bike is moving. In alarm mode, an alarm is transmitted to your smartphone in the event of unauthorised movement.

A high-quality satellite-based GPS bike tracker usually has an acceleration sensor. An Apple AirTag is a passive Bluetooth chip without an accelerometer. It does not automatically notify you of a theft, it is not even connected to apps of android users.

5. AirTags do not have a rechargeable battery

The AirTags work with a replaceable button cell battery. Neither the AirTag battery is rechargeable nor do they have a long battery life. The battery life of the AirTags lasts about a year, but only if the location is transmitted once a day. The more Bluetooth data are transmitted, the shorter the battery life. If the battery is about to run out, you will be notified in good time in the “Find my” app, but that is probably of no use to a bike owner if the e-bike is up and about.

Here again: A GPS bike tracker for e-bikes like BikeTrax is powered by the e-bike battery. In case it doesn’t get any power from the e-bike the tracker has an additional battery that ensures that the GPS tracker still transmits or receives, even if the power supply (e.g. e-bike battery) is switched off or removed. The BikeTrax GPS tracker for example lasts another 14 hours if the e-bike is moved continuously and up to three more weeks on stand-by.

Practical check: How bicycles and e-bikes are stolen

Unlike the AirTag, PowUnity’s BikeTrax is a “genuine” GPS tracker that is mounted inside the e-bike and not on it. Via the PowUnity app, the owner can see the specific location of his e-bike at any time in real time and receives a motion alert on his smartphone in the event of unauthorised movement. Hundreds of stolen e-bikes have already been located and returned to their rightful owners.

BikeTrax owners often contact us directly and tell us about their success. You can read the best success stories here or watch them on YouTube in our BikeTrax Hits series. In this way, we are constantly expanding our knowledge of how bikes and e-bikes are stolen. A familiar pattern is the following:

Box van with foreign number plate on collection tour

A gang of thieves consisting of two to three people steal 15 – 20 e-bikes within 24 hours, load them into a van and drive them across the national border.

In this case, AirTags do not help to locate the van with the stolen goods. If the thieves have an iPhone, all they have to do is turn off Bluetooth or GPS on it (because of the anti-stalking security feature, they are advised to do this).

Since they move continuously, tracking by other iPhone owners is not guaranteed. For this, the thieves would have to be continuously in the vicinity of an iPhone owner. If any location data is displayed, it will be out of date in a few seconds because the van with the stolen bikes is on the move.

With a “genuine” global positioning system, such as BikeTrax offers, permanent location is guaranteed. The location is updated every 10 seconds and the thief or thieves can be caught.

In our BikeTrax Hit 10 (with EN subtitles) you can watch such a success story:

Another theft detection pattern is the following:

E-bike theft from your own garage and at a doctor’s appointment in town

The faster you react in case of theft, the higher your probability of success. A concrete example:

Ernst W. from Bonn had his e-bike stolen at 3 a.m. Fortunately, it was equipped with PowUnity’s BikeTrax. Ernst W. was woken up by the motion alarm transmitted to his smartphone, whereupon he alerted the local police. Just 20 minutes later, the police stopped the van containing Ernst W.’s e-bike. Ernst W. talks about the details of this success story in this video.

Why would an Apple AirTag not have led to such rapid success in this case? AirTags do not have a motion alarm!

Roland’s theft story is similarly exciting and a bit more curious. His 11,000 euro bike was stolen twice in one day. He got it back each time because of his direct action. Or to put it another way: thanks to motion alarms and seamless real-time tracking.

Apple devices in the test: This is what the smart AirTag gadget is for

AirTags are a useful aid in your own household. A key is quickly misplaced. The AirTag attached to it and the search function on the iPhone save unnecessary minutes of searching the lost AirTag such a case.

The simple connection to the iPhone, the small size of only 32 millimetres and the low weight of 11 grams also stood out positively in the test. If you have an iPhone 11 or an iPhone 12, the search direction is also displayed during the search. With older iPhone models and iOS versions, you can see whether you are approaching or moving away from the search object. This is a hot/cold search. The AirTag also has a speaker function. With this you can search for your misplaced key acoustically as it can play a sound.

Tile or Chipolo, however, have an eyelet for attaching the chip to a key ring, for example. AirTags do not have an eyelet. To attach an AirTag to your key ring, you have to buy a separate holder for it. The original Apple AirTag mount costs the same as the AirTag itself.

If you want to place the AirTag in your wallet, you may be bothered by the thickness of the AirTag. At 8 millimetres, AirTags are just thick enough to give your wallet an uncomfortable bulge. The Tile Slim tracking device, on the other hand, is much more comfortable to store in the wallet.

Conclusion: practical apple device, but unsuitable as theft protection

Apple AirTags are a practical and good solution that help you find lost items. In this function, they are not worse, but also not really better than well-known competitor products.

As a cheap bicycle theft protection, the devices do not cut a good figure. Not only does an AirTag not allow real-time location. In many places, Crowd GPS does not work at all. As soon as a thief doesn’t get past people with Apple’s “Find my” app and Bluetooth and GPS turned on, you can’t track your stolen bike. You also don’t have a motion alarm.

So the chances of recovering a stolen bike with an Apple Airtag are close to zero. But that’s not so bad. After all, there are always real GPS trackers like BikeTrax from PowUnity. You’ll be notified immediately if someone tries to tamper with your e-bike, and you can track a stolen bike in real time, even in remote locations. So you don’t give thieves a chance.

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