Can Apple's AirTag prevent bicycle theft?

May 09, 2021

Can Apple's AirTag prevent bicycle theft?

Apple recently announced their new AirTag, a miniature tracking device for small items, intended for keys, a backpack, or other small items. Lost items can be located using Apple's "Find My" app on your iPhone, or you can also trigger them to make a sound on the AirTag built in speaker and just follow your ears to the misplaced item. 

While similar technologies have existed previously from other brands, none of them have had the scale or reach of Apple's iCloud network and millions of devices behind them, nor have they been so inexpensive (a single AirTag sells for just $29.)

AirTags are clearly a powerful tool, which immediately got me thinking - can I put AirTags on my bikes to track them down in the event one is stolen? Although they aren't intended for this type of use, the answer is yes - sort of.

Recovering a stolen bicycle fitted with an Apple Airtag 

In addition to viewing the location of your item on a map at any time, you can also flag it as "lost", and you'll get notified immediately if it turns up on the network. Especially in urban areas, a stolen bike would likely be in range of many differenent devices that can help locate it. Slick. 

If your bike did end up being stolen, you can also have the AirTag make a loud noise to see if it's nearby. If you can hear it, simply follow your ears. You can also use prompts on your phone - think "AirTag is 25 feet ahead of you on your left" to narrow your search.

It's not a guarantee, but having an AirTag on your bike could definitely improve the odds of recovering a stolen bike. In the event law enforcement was involved, showing that you're the owner of an attached AirTag could also help substantiate your bike ownership claim.

AirTag - alternative to a bicycle lock?

Clearly a good lock is one of the best ways to prevent your bicycle from being stolen, but that isn't always practical. You might be on an extended bikepacking or touring trip and don't want to carry the extra weight of a lock, or you might want to lean your bike outside 7-11 after a fast group training ride. Locking your bike up would always be best, but if you don't have a lock, AirTag is a decent alternative.

An AirTag is small enough to hide on a bicycle

Each AirTag is about the size of a small disc 1 1/4" in diameter - about the size of a dollar coin. It would be pretty easy to hide one on a bicycle, perhaps inside the frame tubes if your bike is large enough, underneath the saddle, or in some other hidden location.

Claimed battery life is about a year, and they use common CR2032 coin-style batteries that you may already have on hand (many bicycle lights, cyclecomputers, power meters, etc. already use this size.) 

Simply stash an AirTag on your bike in a discrete location and you've got a cheap tracker that can be followed using the mobile phone you already own.

Limitations of the AirTag

Most importantly, an AirTag does not have GPS. AirTags only work when they are in range of Apple devices. If you drop an item with an AirTag stuck on it in the remote wilderness with no people nearby, the location feature won't work. Drop the same item in the parking lot of your favorite MTB trailhead, though, and it will work, because so many mobile phone users will be passing that spot, and their devices can talk to the AirTag, even though it isn't theirs.

If you lose your device, it's not just your phone that's "looking" for the missing item - every other phone/tablet connected to the Apple iCloud network via cellular or wifi is looking too. That feels creepy, but powerful.

As with most Apple devices, you need to be in the Apple ecosystem for things to work. Tracking your AirTag means you need relatively recent Apple device: iPhone SE, iPhone 6s or later, or iPod touch (7th generation) with iOS 14.5 or later, or iPad Pro, iPad (5th generation or later), iPad Air 2 or later, or iPad mini 4 or later with iPadOS 14.5 or later.

You can imagine that this raises some privacy concerns. A stalker might use an AirTag to keep an eye on their victim. To prevent this, Apple will alert you if an AirTag you don't own appears to be traveling with you. In the case of a stolen bike, this might alert the thief that a tracker is present, and prompt them to locate and remove it. Still, you might have a window of time to recover your stolen bike before that happens.

AirTag alternatives

Users who prefer the Android ecosystem can look to a competing product, Tile. Tile recently announced a new deal with Amazon, which will allow Tile to leverage the Bluetooth networks created by millions of Amazon's Alexa devices, similar to the way Apple's AirTags rely on millions of Apple devices to power search.

AirTag - not perfect, but for $29, worth trying

In summary, Apple's AirTag looks like a promising way to track your stolen bicycle. It isn't perfect, but at just $29, it's inexpensive protection for bikes that cost thousands of dollars. I look forward to giving them a try.


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